The Civil Wars at the Varsity Theater, 4/17/11

Categories: Last Night
Photos by Stacy Schwartz
The Civil Wars
April 17, 2011
Varsity Theater, Minneapolis

Who are these adorable people? Where did they come from? And, dear god, why have I been sleeping on them until now?

These were the questions running through my head Sunday afternoon as I was completely bowled over by a matinee performance by the Civil Wars, a stunning acoustic duo who sold out not one, but three shows in the Twin Cities this week. In addition to yesterday's at-capacity show, which was estimated to be in the ballpark of 700 people, they quickly sold out two nights at Bryant-Lake Bowl's small theater. 

As soon as they started to sing, it was easy to see what all the fuss was about.

Joy Williams and John Paul White are incredibly charming performers. They specialize in heartbreaking, sparse, bluegrass-inspired folk music, with White's acoustic guitar serving as their only accompaniment, and it left all kinds of space in the performance for their voices to mingle and cling together like magnets. The two singers would rise and fall together, pulling away from the mic at the exact same moment and occasionally abandoning the mics all together, and every note and muffled giggle was audible throughout the entire venue. In fact, the whole packed crowd was so quiet that even the shutter clicks of the cameras in the audience and the popping of cans being opened at the back bar were audible over the music -- it reminded me of the intensity of seeing Bon Iver in a place like the Turf Club, when the crowd was so eerily rapt and reverential that you could hear the air conditioning turning on and off. I love when that happens.

Photos by Stacy Schwartz
​The duo seemed incredibly self-aware of the seriousness of their music, and at times their performance had a tongue-in-cheek quality to it. White would turn and sing directly into Williams' ear, doing a little dance while he strummed his guitar, and Williams would raise a hand to his face, trying to concentrate on her singing and grinning ear to ear. They played off one another with the intimacy of lovers (they aren't), and it was awe-inspiring to see two people perform together with such a natural ease and tenderness.

In addition to performing most of the songs off their debut full length, Barton Hollow, the pair threw in several seemingly random covers: "You Are My Sunshine" (which they proclaimed they were on a mission to "ruin for everyone"), the Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm," Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," and Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love," which they just released as a 7" for Record Store Day. Each of the covers took on a new life in the hands of the Civil Wars; the Smashing Pumpkins song in particular was almost unrecognizable in its slow, sweeping beauty.

At the risk of veering even further into hyperbole, I'll leave you with this -- a video of the Civil Wars performing the song that gave me the most intense chills during their hour-and-15-minute set, "Falling":

Personal bias: This show felt perfect to me. How is that possible? I'm sure I was biased toward it in some way, but it was just plain beautiful.
The crowd: Young and exceedingly polite.
Overheard the crowd: "Wow. WOW."
Random notebook dump: I want to scoop them up and put them in my pocket.

Photos by Stacy Schwartz

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