June 15, 2010
El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles
Joy Williams and John Paul White (aka The Civil Wars) played another brilliant show at The El Rey Wednesday. They played songs off their acclaimed album Barton Hollow, along with a few covers, interspersed with bouts of comedy that emerge naturally from their dynamic interplay on stage.
When people talk about the rise of certain musicians and what it took for them to “make it”, they may mention a record label with a dialed-in team of people and resources supporting the band, radio, placement of a song in a popular TV ad, timing, or “luck”. Timing could be a factor- Williams and White met just over two and a half years ago. As “luck” would have it, although neither of them wanted to attend the songwriting gathering in Nashville where they met, they both showed up. The result of that songwriting session was the song “Falling” and the formation of The Civil Wars.
The Civil Wars have sold more than 100,000 copies of Barton Hollow in four months, without a major label. They played 3 sold-out shows in Los Angeles, in one week. A friend recently asked me “how are they doing it? Without a label? Without major marketing dollars?”
The refreshing answer to that question is: the music. Barton Hollow is an exceptional album, and seeing The Civil Wars perform live is undeniable evidence that this is real. It’s good. It’s got soul. The Civil Wars are “making it” because their live shows and their music is truly phenomenal. They don’t have nor need flashy lights and costumes. Selfishly, I hope they never tour with a band. The Civil Wars instruments are simply: the perfect blend of their voices, White’s guitar, and on occasion, William’s piano. That is all that’s needed.
White and Williams engage playfully with each other and with the crowd during shows. They’re genuinely gracious. “You guys are HERE. And you bought tickets. And you stood in line. We don’t take that for granted,” Williams said upon looking out at the crowd of their sold-out El Rey show. The one thing I say to every musician I meet is “You should go to as many venues as possible ‘as a fan’. You should buy tickets and pay the often-exorbitant service fees, stand in line, have your chewing gum taken away, pay money for drinks and parking — truly understand what the audience goes through to BE at your show, so you know how much you have to overcome to blow them away.” Whether or not they’ve actually done this exercise themselves, this is something Williams and White clearly understand. In fact, their entire show feels like a “thank you” to the audience.
I’m posting some video so you can get a sense of the show (or re-live it if you were there). That said, there is NO substitute for seeing The Civil Wars live. Videos can’t do it justice. You can’t hear the silence nor witness the attentiveness of the crowd at what is often a noisy venue. You can’t see the looks on the faces of the audience or feel the dynamic exchange between White and Williams, The Civil Wars and the fans, as pure as it is, in a video. This is just to give you an idea, but to truly get it, you need to see The Civil Wars live…
Williams and White joke about replacing each other during the intro to “I’ve Got This Friend”: