The Civil Wars Wortham Center January 20, 2012
Check out our slideshow of Civil Wars playing to a packed house.
Strolling up Wortham Center's grand staircase in advance of The Civil Wars show on Friday night, several thoughts went tumbling through Aftermath's head. We weren't certain what to expect from the show, being only vaguely familiar with the headliner after all, and felt slightly out of place attending a concert in the thousand-plus seat Cullen Theater.
The last time the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White came through Houston, it was at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, an intimate venue that, with some generous math, provides around a sixth of the capacity that the Wortham offered. It seemed a bit odd to witness a band that eighteen months prior was largely unknown now selling out auditoriums and theaters. If only the show had been as nice as the setting.
The highlight of the night was the delightfully surprising trio of ladies known as The Staves. Hailing from just north of London, these gorgeous girls absolutely stole the show, pulling a fast one on us and many others in the crowd who were previously unfamiliar with the group.
The trio's music was at once sparse and stunning, as the ladies employed their vocal prowess set only to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar and on some numbers, an additional ukulele. Singing in petrifying harmonies, they stood diminutively behind their microphones, dangerously charming. The songs were littered with great turns of phrase, like "Tongue Behind My Teeth's" biting "speak with words you've stolen from better men than you." In "Facing West," the girls coo, "sing me a song, your voice is like silver," but to be truthful, they were the ones possessing the golden tones.
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It sure didn't hurt that the ladies were undeniably cute, and due to their accents we were smitten from the start. Judging from the utter silence during their songs, the rest of the crowd was as taken as we were. There really was the potential to hear a pin drop, an amazing display of respect given Houston concertgoer's penchant for chatting during more subdued performances. At any other venue in town, this set would've been ruined.
When it was finished, our heart had been turned into a puddle by these three Brits. They've successfully made mastery of the country-folk territory currently reigned over by acts like Fanfarlo and Fleet Foxes, and we've added their upcoming album to our watch list.
After an honest-to-goodness real intermission, complete with chime-ringing ushers, we headed back into the theater to settle in for The Civil Wars. In stark contrast to their tour mates, the duo was lacking. Sure, they got more cheers, but audience seemed enraptured by The Staves, whereas they made noise for the Wars songs they knew - or the covers they recognized, but we'll get to that later.
Opening with "Tip Of My Tongue" off their Poison & Wine EP, it was quickly apparent that the Joy and John Paul have some musical chops. It was another sparse stage arrangement, with their voices embellished only with his guitar and on a few numbers, Joy at the piano.
By the end of the third song, when the pair took their first break to talk to the audience, the luster had faded. Something felt very awkward, and it didn't take us long to put our finger on it: The Civil Wars are a manufactured product.
It's true, and as Joy explained later in the set, the duo met during a mutual songwriting session in Nashville that had been arranged by other people (we'll guess their managers, but Aftermath can't be certain). That session went well enough, as evidenced by the success they've enjoyed, and it's hardly the worst of circumstances. But for some whatever reason, that artifice bleeds out into the stage show. It hides within the lyrics. We continued to encounter this feeling that everything felt forced and false.
It probably wouldn't be nearly as bad - or evident - if it weren't for this wretched faux sexual tension drummed up between the two musicians. It's laid out in their videos, but that's to be expected. What caught us off guard was its omnipresence in The Civil Wars set. Whether it's Williams' goofish bouncing, or the almost-but-not-quite brushes she has with White, or the overacted and rehearsed looks the pair traded throughout the night, the contrived romantic struggle runs rampant.
It struck us as cloying and desperate, turning their show into something canned and hokey. The worst part of the whole ordeal is that this stupid stage act then overtakes their musical ability. It becomes a show to be heard and not seen, an odd circumstance for a concert. One friend we encountered upon leaving the theater remarked that she'd eventually just shut her eyes.
For all the tragedy, there were bright spots tucked within the mire. "My Father's Father," their sixth song, finally gave us something to enjoy. It felt honest, as if it required the least effort to perform, and left us pining for our own grandfather. "Barton Hollow," the title track of their 2011 album, was a nice bloodthirsty stomper, and drew out some raucous cheers from the assembled throng.
"Birds Of A Feather" had a similar feel, ramped up and rowdy, and we longed for a little more whiskey in The Civil Wars guts, something to stoke the fire and draw out more big numbers. Alas, we were left with less, and the true downturn came with an emasculated cover of "Disarm" before The Civil Wars closed with their soft duet, "Poison & Wine."
When they returned for an encore, they rolled out two more covers, "Billie Jean" and "Dance Me To The End Of Love." The former made us feel like we were at karaoke night, or watching a bad wedding band, or worse. As for the latter, well we'd just like to leave Cohen's words to Cohen. It might be a song The Civil Wars have been playing from as far back as their first gig, but it speaks volumes when a band refrains from performing an original in their encore.
Personal Bias: I honestly came into this show knowing next to nothing about The Civil Wars, save for a general idea about what style to expect and how many people would be on stage.
The Crowd: Packed the house, and as Joy acknowledged, a heck of a lot of date nights, with a mixture of both willing and begrudging male halves.
Overheard In The Crowd: Absolutely nothing during The Staves, which was perfect. Plenty of cheers when The Civil Wars brought in the recognizable tunes and covers, and one person calling for Pantera when White announced that he grew up listening to (among other things) metal.
Random Notebook Dump: Tarry is a word that only Brits could or would slip into a song and still sound natural.
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Tip Of My Tongue Forget Me Not From The Valley 20 Years I've Got This Friend My Father's Father Barton Hollow Falling C'est La Mort I Want You Back (The Corporation) Birds Of A Feather To Whom It May Concern Disarm (Smashing Pumpkins) Poison & Wine
Billie Jean (Michael Jackson) Dance Me To The End Of Love (Leonard Cohen)