Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Civil Wars @ Moody Theater - Austin City Limits Taping, 2/29/12

'Critic's darling' is a term thrown around quite a bit, but no music act of the last year embodies the spirit of the term better than The Civil Wars. Their debut album Barton Hollow, released just one year ago, peaked at #10 on the Billboard 200. Fresh off their double Grammy win for 'Best Country Duo/Group Performance' and 'Best Folk Album' (and an unconscionable snub for a 'Best New Artist' nomination), the duo brought their classic blend of folk musings, pop-tinged harmonies, and singer-songwriter honesty to the Moody Theater for the opening of the 2012 Austin City Limits taping season on Wednesday, February 29th. After playing a sold-out show at the Paramount just last month, Austin was more than happy to offer a warm welcome back to The Civil Wars.

Joy Williams of The Civil Wars lets her passion out at
Eddie's Attic in Decatur, Georgia on August 16, 2010.

Always at the mercy of the ACL blog ticket lottery gods, I was not one of the lucky winners, but fortunately a few of my friends made the guest list. One of them graciously met me downtown so that I could be their +1, despite their own inability to attend. I am forever grateful to said friend, because this was a spectacular show (there was a smile plastered across my face for most of the concert).

A musical pairing that seems almost too good to be true, Joy Williams and John Paul White sing about the highs and lows of marriage, and for a few moments you wonder if they are married to one another and are using this as some sort of twisted couple's therapy. Not the case - both are married to other people, and not only does John Paul have four children of his own, Joy got the crowd chuckling when she mentioned her new-found role as a 'human bakery'. This explains her positively beaming demeanor, but she was gorgeous and slender in a flowing, layered black dress, even showing some skin in the back.

The setlist centered around tracks from Barton Hollow along with a few covers and a couple new songs. Upon starting into 'I've Got This Friend', Joy joked this was the pair's "one and only happy song." John Paul reminisced about waiting for Austin City Limits to come on TV as a child (as it was on one of the only channels...), and both performers made it clear they were extremely thankful to be a part of the 35+ year tradition, seemingly blown away by the crowd's adoration. They also described their first meeting in a songwriting session in 2008, and how it was a pure music connection from the start. The first song they wrote together that day ended up on the album. And while John Paul mentioned growing up surrounded by bluegrass, folk, and Americana (which elicited cheers from the crowd), Joy half-jokingly admitted having a completely different musical background, growing up listening to radio-friendly pop "in California". Yet, somehow the pair found a way to bring their two styles together into one seamless combination of eerie perfection that can only be found in the rare live setting.

The comfort the pair demonstrates on-stage is reassuring, considering it's just the two of them and a guitar; although Joy did play piano on two songs, she is clearly at her best when free of any instruments, letting her body move and vocal fluctuations vary with the mood of the moment. It's easy to lose yourself watching her, and occasionally you forget that John Paul is on the stage. He provides an essential and constant backdrop to Joy's voice that just makes the whole thing 'work'. 

The audience held on to every note as if it were the last they would ever hear. You could hear a pin drop in the studio in-between Joy's breaths, but once each song ended, the audience erupted into appreciation for the experience. After leaving the stage, a rousing and unending cheer for more brought the duo back out for an encore, featuring slow-burning covers of 'Billie Jean' and Smashing Pumpkins song 'Disarm.' When the lights came up, every single person in that studio of 800 knew they were smart not to miss this one.