Last night, we formally kicked off Season 38 of Austin City Limits with a taping of the Grammy Award-winning The Civil Wars. The duo made an appearance last year in the ACL Presents special Americana Music Festival 2011, which is when we knew we had to have them do their own episode of ACL. Their performance exceeded our expectations.
Despite having met only three years ago, Joy Williams and John Paul White sound as if they were born to play together. “We couldn’t be more different – in every way,” remarked Williams, but it doesn’t inhibit their musical chemistry. Since she’s not tied down to an instrument (except on “Poison & Wine” and “C’est La Mort,” on which she plays piano), Williams could let the music take her wherever it could – her dances and gestures were, pardon the pun, a joy to watch. White is quite a picker, using his guitar as both melodic and rhythm instrument on the rocking “Oh Henry” (an as yet unrecorded song), the waltzing “Forget Me Not” and the bluesy “Barton Hollow.” The way the pair wove their voices around each other on “Falling,” “Tip of My Tongue” and “20 Years” was magical – as @timbasham commented on Twitter, “one guitar, two voices, an enormously beautiful sound.”
While they won Grammys for Best Country Duo/Group and Best Folk Act, they showed that they’re comfortable with more than just Americana during a fascinating range of covers. Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (the second time that song has been performed on the ACL stage – see the Mos Def episode) became a bluesy, playful ramble, while the Jackson 5’s great pop tune “I Want You Back” transmuted into a slow, heartfelt plea. The pair’s version of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” – “the one place we do kinda cross,” remarked White after explaining how different the pair’s musical tastes are – stayed true to the original recording’s intensity. Their take on Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” was simply transcendent.
And we have to give a shout-out to the beautiful ACL audience. The Civil Wars’ music is quiet and austere, and the crowd showed their love without talking over the songs or the pair’s charming and witty between-songs patter. (“The @thecivilwars comedy is almost as good as their sound,” remarked @atxgingerman on Twitter.) The band went on a special journey and the audience was right there with them the entire time.
“This is one of many things on our bucket list,” said Williams between songs. “We are so amped to be here.” And we were so happy to have them. We don’t have an airdate lined up yet for this episode, but we can’t wait for you to see The Civil Wars on Austin City Limits.