The Civil Wars at the Old Rock House, 4/23/11: Review

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The Civil Wars at the Old Rock House, 4/23/11: Review
Photo by Ettie Berneking

The Civil Wars/White Dress Old Rock House Saturday, April 23

With robotic club-thumpers dominating the mainstream, it's refreshing to spend an evening listening to a band that crafts its music on the strength of powerful voices and the thrumming of a single guitar.

The Civil Wars did just that on Saturday night at the Old Rock House. John Paul White and Joy Williams belted out moody songs with only a guitar for accompaniment. Their setup might have been spare but their music was full of life, and their lyrics were charged with emotion.

Lightning cracked outside The Old Rock House as opener Arum Rae Valkonen of the band White Dress walked off stage. Performing solo, her whispered vocals and buzzing guitar offered the perfect prelude for the minimalist performance of The Civil Wars.

The duo climbed on stage as the sold-out crowd hooted with approval. Everything about this band drips of seriousness. As the singers put it themselves, "We're the Civil Wars, and we don't do sing-songy." That was perfect for this subdued audience, mostly populated by hand holding couples and guys and girls with their arms locked around each other.

But as serious as they might seem, the two couldn't help playing around on stage. Even from the first song, Joy Williams was all smiles as the band started the show with "Tip of My Tongue". Occasionally, White would sneak up and sing over William's shoulder, and she had to fight back laughter.

Williams signed her first recording contract at seventeen, and her voice is like honey as it drips from a spoon. It's surprising that a voice so powerful could come from such a tiny woman.

The eeriness of the vocal interplay between the two was no more evident than in their rendition of the lullaby "You are my sunshine". Their version is racked with darkness. "We think it's a shame you don't know how sad this song is," White said.

The Civil Wars is known for its romantic, old-fashioned style, taking bluegrass and slowing it down while adding a seductive air that's uniquely its own.

For its encore, the duo did what it does best, turning the iconic "Billie Jean" into a ghostly rendition of its former self, one that whispered of back alley rendezvous and a love affair gone wrong.

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