Concert Review | The Civil Wars at The Pageant in Saint Louis

Joy Williams and John Paul White at The Pageant | Photo by Louis Kwok

“How about a happy song?” John Paul White asked the sold-out Pageant audience before launching into “I’ve Got This Friend,” a stellar track off Barton Hollow. “We have one of those.”

And although most of the songs played last night at The Pageant were indeed dark, sad, and filled with emotion, I didn’t get the feeling anyone left the venue depressed.

No, somehow, it was a happy night.

White and Joy Williams make up The Civil Wars, a duo who has become thought of as an overnight success, even if that’s really only a small part of their story. Like most of their songs, which reveal stories about struggle, harsh truths, and loss, White and Williams were both once teetering on the edge of giving up music altogether, until they met on a chance meeting at a songwriting camp in Nashville. And now they’re easily selling out 2,000+ capacity venues across the world. Make sense of that if you must, but to explain their story that easily would be to only focus on what has happened in their lives over the past three or so years, which — you bet — has been filled with fortune.

Still, you’ll find people who’ll knock their success as “lucky,” or those who will find their tunes “boring,” the latter being a term to describe music that irritates me (it’s almost as if the only “cool” music these days is the stuff that’s defined as “different,” whatever that is supposed to mean). But, that’s fine. Those are probably the same people who have yet to see the duo perform live.

And their live show is indeed a journey, one you must have the patience for to reap its full reward.

Case in point: you could argue that White and Williams dug themselves a small hole with the way they began their show at The Pageant — it was as safe as driving under the speed limit on a lonesome highway on a sunny day.

The opening “Tip Of My Tongue” was sweet, and the selections that followed, “Forget Me Not,” “From This Valley,” “20 Years,” and “I’ve Got This Friend” all showed us exactly what we already knew — that White and Williams have mastered the acoustic-folk beauty of their only album, Barton Hollow. While the music sounded wonderful, and mysterious silhouettes created from the back lighting during “20 Years” were indeed effective, things were about to change as soon as White picked up his electric guitar.

The sudden shift in energy served as a reminder that The Civil Wars have gained an attentive and respectful audience for a simple reason: they are completely capable of pulling off that lonesome stretch of road to discover something that hasn’t been promised to them.

“You mind if we get rowdy for a minute?” White asked before he and Williams jolted the audience with “Barton Hollow,” a exhilarating take on one of their best songs. Williams, who doesn’t stand still for long at any moment while she’s performing, let loose in almost sinister fashion, creating waves with her arm motions while White forced angry weather with his guitar while singing, “I’m a dead man walking here.

What this did was a couple things. One, it created an expectation that, for the rest of the show, nothing should be taken for granted — that the duo’s sound and attitude could change on a dime (something that I don’t remember happening as effectively at their last show at The Old Rock House). And two, that the songs performed before “Barton Hollow” were indeed a setup — a calm before the storm — to pull us in and falsely allow us to get comfortable on a Sunday evening. A comfort zone, after all, is a dangerous thing when it comes to live music, and White and Williams quickly dragged us from whatever it was we thought was their only weapon. And it worked.

The music that followed, while never matching the electric energy of “Barton Hollow,” was just as mesmerizing. “Falling,” even with its gentle melody, appeared with sharp teeth, as Williams belted out its final message: “Don’t you make me lie here and die here.” Again, we were reminded that The Civil Wars’ songs aren’t as much about convincing another soul as they are about convincing one’s confused and conflicted self.

Before “To Whom It May Concern,” Williams told the audience that it was quickly becoming one of her favorite songs to sing, simply because each fan seems to have a different idea of what it could mean. Perhaps that’s why they then chose to cover Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm,” a song that was probably unknown to more than half the audience — it was a chance to introduce some of their fans to a classic song that is lyrically rich and dynamic. Their performance was haunting; they built up the song slowly, relying on a simple line for grand effect, and they sang it softly: “The killer in me is the killer in you.

Again, the setup, deliberate or not, was perfect, as the final song of their main set — their hit — “Poison and Wine,” embodies the struggle of the aforementioned line written by Billy Corgan. As White and Williams traded blows– “I wish you’d hold me when I turn my back,” “Your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine” — they would soon sing the ultimate truth: “I don’t love you, but I always will.

The duo would return for a two-song encore, covering Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love,” but we were already given the final punch and message with “Poison and Wine.”

No matter how many times we exit that lonesome highway, the love found on its road is waiting for us when we return.

The killer in me is the killer in you. My love.

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