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Wailing and Straining: A Note on The Civil Wars

Posted in: General,Reviews by Tom Beaudoin on April 10, 2011

On Friday night, I saw The Civil Wars perform at the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is one of the few times I have seen a relatively new band and been utterly convinced that they deserve to hit the big-time, and in fact will do so.

They are a duo, Joy Williams and John Paul White, who play bluegrassy-honky-tonk-mountain-music-styled songs about, so much as I could understand the lyrics, the relationship between love’s certainties and uncertainties. And their musicality is so efflorescent as to unfurl in waves off of them into the audience and up to the ceiling, a slow-rolling steam with the rare and simple power to beckon.

Live, there was a tender and robust erotic interplay between Williams and White that showed out dimensions of carnal revel in the songs that might not otherwise be imagined. They sang with a physical closeness unusual for a musical duo. Make that a wailing and straining, humming and moaning physical closeness. But that physicality is subtle: on Friday night, White seemed to be as much in communion with his guitar as he was with Williams, and during songs she addressed herself vocally or physically to his guitar almost as much as to him.

Here, I thought, were witness, agency, pleasure, gestures of unadorned address, and surrender: domains of experience that overlap with what theology has wanted for centuries to elicit.

Tom Beaudoin
In the air between Chicago and New York

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