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The Civil Wars come out of nowhere

Cafe 939, Boston, February 19, 2011

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

The Civil Wars came out of nowhere a few weeks ago see their full-length - unless you consider a free download of their second gig ever - debut, "Barton Hollow," land at number 12 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart with about 25,000 units sold.

Those are not huge numbers, but considering that Joy Williams and John Paul White did it on their own label with no major label support at all, that's pretty darn impressive.

So was their gig before a sold-out crowd of 190 people, almost none of whom had ever seen them before (the duo played a show in August 2010 before about 30 people at a tiny Cambridge club).

Perhaps the most obvious reference point to what they are doing is Robert Plant and Alison Krauss with "Raising Sand," but The Civil Wars are not mere replicators of the great Plant and Krauss.

White, a scruffy looking Muscle Shoals, Ala. resident with shoulder length hair and facial hair, who sort of recalls Johnny Depp, and Williams lived up to the excellence of "Barton Hollow." They traded leads and lines often with White a soulful sounding singer and Williams, a one-time Christian artist, displaying pretty and at times ethereal vocal chops. One often provided backing harmonies and vocals for the other.

It was all very very effective because both were highly capable singers.

They also changed tempos and styles enough to easily maintain interest with White spearheading the music on acoustic guitar. The songs were of very high quality as well, including 20 Years the tougher sounding title track and the lovely Falling, which sounds like something The Swell Season (another musical reference point) would have performed.

The Civil Wars certainly were not content to play the familiar. They trotted out a song written only two weeks ago in Park City, Utah during the Sundance film festival. Among a few covers, they did a thankfully serious take on Billie Jean.

White and Williams maintained strong stage chemistry. It should be noted that they are not a couple - both are married to others. They come across more like a playful brother-and-sister act, who have a keen connection with each other.

That came through in their singing along with their banter - some of it serious and humorous, helping themselves win over the enthusiastic crowd.

The Civil Wars may have been pretty much unknowns by most of us until last month, but based on their debut and live gigs like this, they shouldn't be for long at all.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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