The Civil Wars: A Strange Alchemy

Last night at the Triple Door, the Civil Wars played very sincere music very insincerely.

Singer Joy Williams, dressed in a dinner party black dress, and singer/guitarist/Johnny Depp doppelganger John Paul White, smartly tuxedo’d, strolled on stage in monochrome to excited cheers and opened with “Tip of My Tongue”. The stage set-up was minimal, with only a couple amps, a small rack of acoustic guitars, a grand grand piano used on two songs, and the California-via-Nashville duo.

Side by side, Williams began to gently sashay to the rhythm, and only stopped occasionally to sidestep around White and playfully sing into his other ear, which made him chuckle. Musically, their singing together is close to sonic perfection, but from the outset they put the joy of being human and taking pleasure in their talents above the inhuman demands of a rigid performance. Which somehow made it better. Later they took turns at singing in each others’ faces so that the other would crack up. Which they did, but their music didn’t miss a beat.

“Forget Me Not” and “From this Valley” followed, and their clean harmonies shone while Williams danced with White while looking at him as he pounded out chords on his guitar. Flirty but goofy, she hula’d her hips and subtly bounced her outward-facing palms to the beat in a way that was neither sexual nor familial, but that ambiguous, infinite, dizzying space in between. “The last time we played in Seattle was at the Tractor Tavern,” Williams said, “but there’s much more people here tonight.” The duo then played the title track from their first studio album released in February, Barton Hollow, after they promised the track would “bring a bit of the South our way.”

“I only met and shook John Paul’s hand three years ago” Williams said.“There was a strange alchemy that neither of us had experienced before.” Witnessing first-hand that alchemy from the first song onward tonight, the audience knew exactly what she meant.

They played an unannounced cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”, a brooding and melancholy version of the otherwise peppy Motown hit; thinking about the heartbroken lyrics line by line, this maybe be how the song was meant to sound. “Birds of a Feather”, “My Father’s Father” and a shimmering cover of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” came afterwards, all played flawlessly with the duo’s matchless vocal skill and captivating harmonies.

Perhaps the best description of tonight’s concert belongs to Williams, who, before their last song “Poison & Wine”, and before they came back on stage to perform a relaxed and mournful country ballad cover of “Billie Jean” as the first of their two song encore, and before they clinked their water glasses together just before they walked off the stage for the last time, said “We’re just in the living room with you all tonight.” That’s precisely what it felt like.

Support for the Civil Wars came from James Vincent McMorrow, who from the start of his set stood stock-still and pencil-thin in a plaid shirt and jeans, back straight and feet firmly cemented to the floor, like a cut-out model of a lone troubadour, or a military-trained busker. With no introduction he began singing “We Are Ghosts” with only his lips and fingers moving, the rest of him obediently frozen on stage. His voice was high; a low falsetto from the back of the throat, and he gently sang words and non-words as the music and moment saw fit.

The Dublin, Ireland singer-songwriter’s voice grew and warmed with each song. After his Damien Rice-esque “And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop” and “This Old Dark Machine”, he took a quick sip of water and tuned his guitar while offering zero conversation. He preferred not to improve on silence.

It’s a surprise, then, that a couple of songs later McMorrow abruptly ceased to be mute and offered “How’s the food?” before launching into an amusing three-minute monologue in his calm Irish brogue, talking about Seattle, touring the U.S., and playing Glastonbury Festival in England this weekend.

“We were singing together earlier, just the three of us,” he said of the Civil Wars, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for musicians to actually sing and play together backstage for fun, as opposed to lounging on old sofas in a squalid green room. Such is both bands’ pastoral sound: If he said, “We were wandering through the sunset-drenched meadows of Bainbridge Island earlier, just the three of us,” you’d believe him.

“I just realized that I forgot to introduce myself. I’m James Vincent McMorrow,” he said before playing his penultimate song “The Sparrow and the Wolf”. The audience cheered, endeared by his humility.

To close, McMorrow announced that he was going to go off mic and sing and play unplugged. We all waited to see whether we could really hear him, and we could. His beautiful voice and guitar softly floated all the way to the back of the Triple Door, the concert hall and the world suddenly more still, and a woman violently coughing in the restroom only slightly overshadowed the effect.