The Civil Wars’ tour bus gasped out of its exhaust pipe in the Texas heat while it was parked in front of the Texas Union Ballroom on Tuesday, July 19th. Joy Williams of The Civil Wars duo seemed amazed at the stifling weather, asking the crowd if it was “actually possible to fry an egg on the concrete” while John Paul White tried to fix a guitar string on the fly. The crowd seemed unfazed by the tech problem, yelling back at her that the “proper way to fry an egg was on the hood of a car,” though it wasn’t the first difficulty with equipment that the band experienced during their set. Joy and John Paul’s banter back and forth and with the crowd was really what made the set unique; the audience felt like they were experiencing a comedy show on top of the folk concert, all for the price of one ticket.
The Civil Wars’ show was sponsored by KUT and the Cactus Café, one of the first large shows to be held in the Texas Union Ballroom by KUT since they acquired the Cactus Café amidst the budget crisis last year. KUT couldn’t have picked a better act to show off the programming space; the sold-out show was so full that crowd members were standing in the back even before the opener was halfway through his set. The opening act was a solemn singer-songwriter that reminded me of a depressed Matt The Electrician; he played gritty minor chords on his guitar and whistled to fill out his sound. He joked that the crowd should keep their spirits up because he would eventually play a happy song, a joke mirrored by the Civil Wars later in the evening. His set felt striking in the ballroom, with the crowd holding their breath as they took him in, but it was not a set that would have had the same effect in a SRO club.
The crowd’s energy was tangible when Joy and John Paul sauntered onstage, as audience members rose to their feet with applause before the first chords were struck. The crowd cheered for so long, in fact, that the performers stood and giggled in the spotlight until the applause died down, allowing them to start their set. The set was well rehearsed and started off smoothly, with the performers’ antics giving energy to what could otherwise have been a sleepy folk set. Joy tidied up John Paul’s clothes and skipped in circles around him while he sang, and he retaliated by making funny faces behind her during her parts, which didn’t go unpunished. Their onstage couple act was endearing, but it was hard for me to completely buy into their stage relationship gimmick knowing it was just for the performance’s sake.
The songs were haunting and sounded perfect in the acoustics of the ballroom. Some of the crowd favorites were “Barton Hollow” and “Poison and Wine,” and the duo threw in some interesting covers as well. “Disarm” by the Smashing Pumpkins showed up in the middle of the set, while Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was a hit during the encore. The duo has charisma and talent, though I would be interested to see what they could do with a full band, if only for a few songs. Their harmonies were superb, and they challenged each other onstage to sing higher, louder, longer, pleasing the crowd with each effort. Their first non-SXSW show in Austin was certainly a hit, and I can’t wait to see what comes from The Civil Wars in the future.
-Submitted by Katie Wolters, Music Design