Friday Night: The Civil Wars at The Wortham Center

Categories: Aftermath

Photos by Marc Brubaker
The Civil Wars
Wortham Center
January 20, 2012

Check out our slideshow of Civil Wars playing to a packed house.

Strolling up Wortham Center's grand staircase in advance of The Civil Wars show on Friday night, several thoughts went tumbling through Aftermath's head. We weren't certain what to expect from the show, being only vaguely familiar with the headliner after all, and felt slightly out of place attending a concert in the thousand-plus seat Cullen Theater.

The last time the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White came through Houston, it was at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, an intimate venue that, with some generous math, provides around a sixth of the capacity that the Wortham offered. It seemed a bit odd to witness a band that eighteen months prior was largely unknown now selling out auditoriums and theaters. If only the show had been as nice as the setting.

The highlight of the night was the delightfully surprising trio of ladies known as The Staves. Hailing from just north of London, these gorgeous girls absolutely stole the show, pulling a fast one on us and many others in the crowd who were previously unfamiliar with the group.

The trio's music was at once sparse and stunning, as the ladies employed their vocal prowess set only to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar and on some numbers, an additional ukulele. Singing in petrifying harmonies, they stood diminutively behind their microphones, dangerously charming. The songs were littered with great turns of phrase, like "Tongue Behind My Teeth's" biting "speak with words you've stolen from better men than you." In "Facing West," the girls coo, "sing me a song, your voice is like silver," but to be truthful, they were the ones possessing the golden tones.

It sure didn't hurt that the ladies were undeniably cute, and due to their accents we were smitten from the start. Judging from the utter silence during their songs, the rest of the crowd was as taken as we were. There really was the potential to hear a pin drop, an amazing display of respect given Houston concertgoer's penchant for chatting during more subdued performances. At any other venue in town, this set would've been ruined.

When it was finished, our heart had been turned into a puddle by these three Brits. They've successfully made mastery of the country-folk territory currently reigned over by acts like Fanfarlo and Fleet Foxes, and we've added their upcoming album to our watch list.

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Mont Hoyt
Mont Hoyt

They'll be back. Still gonna release new tunes next year. They got mouths to feed-

Rob Hays
Rob Hays

I think the Civil Wars are at that odd point in their career where they've been touring for almost two years on a single full-length album and an EP.  The "manufactured" feel, which I can definitely identify with, is a result of having all the rough edges sanded off of the material through repetition.  With the exception of "Barton Hollow", everything sounded more polished than it did at the Mucky last year.  

As they said, "Barton Hollow" was the final song they wrote for the full album. If that's an indicator of the direction their career will take, I think they'll be a satisfying band for a long time.  They're strongest when they take their considerable harmonic talents to the muddy bayou depths.


While I can't deny that there was something about The Civil Wars' performance that seemed a bit contrived (Sonny and Cher came to mind), I thoroughly enjoyed the show and, upon consideration of that particular aspect of it, concluded that I would rather enjoy a highly rehearsed and professional concert with charming stage patter than the alternative (especially in an overwhelmingly stuffy venue like Wortham Center). Joy alluded to the atmosphere herself a couple of times when she encouraged the crowd to get more comfortable and even "rowdy". I was also gratified to find that they were capable of engaging in any ad libs and unrehearsed moments as they wished without losing their professional aplomb. It may have been a bit more Vegas than roadhouse, but they pulled it off, and the audience clearly loved it (with you and a few others as the exceptions).

Your suggestion that they are a manufactured group has some surface appeal, but if you'd bother to do some research and read the details of how they found each other, I think you'd agree that it wasn't a case of the a group like Menudo or even the Sex Pistols, for that matter. There was no artifice in their creation, just some effort on the part of other professionals to find folks who could write and possibly perform together. A lot of groups would never have been formed if it weren't for efforts like that.

I had seen The Civil Wars once before at a day show at South by Southwest last March. That performance was in a very crowded, very noisy bar. While there had been a lot of buzz about them by then, and I'm sure that many people in that room had specific desire to see them, I'm sure that quite a few folks were like me and had no particular idea or interest in seeing them. Just as you witnessed at the Staves' performance, that entire crowd went dead cold silent once these two began to sing. They completely blew the crowd away.

I had heard that they liked to throw in a few covers, and for a duo with such a limited songbook, I think it's a great idea. I feared that my familiarity of their written music would cause the material to wear thin. My fears turned out to be unfounded, but the covers were a lot of fun. As for including covers in your encore, I completely disagree with you, especially because it would be so cliche' to save the big hits or even lesser but still very popular material for the encore. I think that the encore provides the artist and the audience an opportunity to stretch and indulge after having addressed all the obligatory aspects of the performance. I've seen many, many artists do the same to great success, even groups like Guided by Voices who have an unending list of song gems from which to choose. While I think much of your criticism is a fair point of view, I think you're just plain wrong to hear the volumes that you thought were being spoken. 

Anyway, I'd say your review was mostly a fair expression of your honest impressions, but it certainly didn't speak for the majority of the audience or me, in particular. 


For the real thing, not manufactured product, look for The Laws if they come to town.  Out of Canada, married couple, great harmonies, writing, and charming.  Their chemistry is real, not overdone, but a great part of the show.     ca=Canada

Missy Jane
Missy Jane

Huh. It's a shame you didn't enjoy the Civil Wars set as much as I did at McGonigel's a few months ago. Perhaps the more intimate setting helped with this type of duet. To me their onstage antics seemed playful and gave an impression they enjoyed performing together rather than feeling like forced sexual tension. Ah well...

Marc Brubaker
Marc Brubaker

Regarding covers in an encore, that's not a problem. (But Billie Jean? Really?) What struck me was the absence of a Civil Wars song in it. Trot out something new, or something you never play.

Marc Brubaker
Marc Brubaker

It was playful, and they probably do love performing together, but this just felt artificial and staged. There was just too much effort put into trying to be cute.

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