If one had to choose the all-around best venue to see The Civil Wars live, it would have to be the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Not only is Music City home to the folk duo, but the history, architecture and exceptional acoustics of the city’s famous “Mother Church of Country Music” combine for the ideal setting to take in The Civil Wars’ Americana bare-boned sound.
Thursday night’s sold-out crowd knew that they were in for something special. The absence of ticket scalpers was a clear indicator that the low temperatures and snow threats weren’t enough keep the fans away. By the time I made my way into the building, most patrons were parked in their pews and the limited number of exclusive hatch prints made for the show had long been removed from the merch table.
Joy Williams and John Paul White took the stage with nothing but a rack of guitars, a couple mics, a piano, and celebratory cocktails. Williams and White mentioned how thrilled they were to be headlining the Ryman numerous times throughout the night, with Williams charmingly shedding a few tears here and there, and White stating that he’d been dreaming of standing on that stage since he first picked up the guitar. They admitted that they never imagined all this could have come from a publisher set-up co-write that they both initially didn’t want to attend.
However, I’m sure the vibes in that particular session turned from sour to sweet once White and Williams heard how their voices fit together in harmony. With pitch-perfect tonality, they set their parts free, and it’s as if the waves attract back together in flight and connect like puzzle pieces.
The Civil Wars played through much of their catalogue, with Williams winning hearts with her beaming smile and poised, yet playful stage presence. They threw in a few covers like The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and Smashing Pumpkins’, “Disarm.” Of course, these renditions were brilliantly given the signature Civil Wars’ treatment with gentle jazzy vocal slides, so they were practically unrecognizable.
The big surprise of the night (which was actually almost anticipated) was a guest appearance by Taylor Swift, who performed “Safe & Sound,” her collaboration with The Civil Wars for “The Hunger Games” soundtrack. It’s no secret that Swift has been a huge endorser and a true fan of The Civil Wars for awhile.
The audience demo may not have fallen into the top consumers of Swift’s music, but they welcomed her with gracious applause. Swift presented herself as a woman, as opposed to a lovestruck teenager that many associate her with. She even sounded more mature on this song, and is clearly experimenting with new registers and venturing past her comfort zone.
The Civil Wars closed out the night, stripping down to literally straight acoustics, just voice and guitar – no amplification, for a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.”
As the crowd filed out of the venue into the severe chill, at least their hearts were filled with a whole lot of warmth provided by the dulcet tones and romantic ambiance of The Civil Wars.