Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.
I recently got the opportunity to see The Civil Wars in concert up in Portland at the Alladdin Theater and for this week’s Music at Mars Hill, I want to take a break from the new music and do a quick concert review. In one sentence, The Civil Wars are the overnight success story of singer/songwriters John Paul White and Joy Williams and how their heavenly voices and delicate folk pop charmed the world. If you haven’t heard of these guys yet, take a look at the album review I wrote over at Relevant Magazine a while back that explains a little more about my take on their debut 2011 album, Barton Hollow.
As I suspected when I wrote the review for the album earlier this year, The Civil Wars are the kind of band that just have to be heard in a live venue to fully appreciate. The show opened with James Vincent McMorrow, who delivered his own glorious brand of folk pop that featured his pitch-perfect vocals and imaginative songwriting (highly recommended). Until I saw them a few weeks ago, I had grown a bit tired of their album and found the slow pace and familiarity of the songs to be holding back the talent of the duo. However, once the two took center stage, the songs were brought to life. While the playful banter kept the middle-aged group laughing, what kept most of the crowd on the edge of their seats was the electrifying intensity of their voices in harmony and the skillful guitar-playing of John Paul White.
What was even more apparent on stage was the sexual tension both in the songs and in the presence of the duo. Knowing that the two are both in separate committed marriages, their suggestive movement and lack of spatial awareness on stage was staggering. In between songs they acted as nothing more than friends or siblings perhaps, but every time they would break out into an instrumental section, Joy Williams would get uncomfortably close to her counterpart and even rock back and forth with him and his guitar. Every time, my girlfriend sitting next to me would cringe and squeeze my hand, as if she worried that they might just give in to each other at any moment. It makes me wonder if the experience isn’t unlike watching a romantic comedy or an episode of Mad Men in that its meant to entertain our fantasies and unrealities (especially considering the Christian community’s embrace of the band). As one of my friends delicately put it after the show, “If I were his wife, I would hate her!”
Even still, its that same tension that draws the band’s sound together and makes it so undeniable. The power of the male and female voice together in harmony is a beautiful depiction of the human heart and relationship. If you get the chance, you don’t want to miss out on seeing these guys when they pass through your town.