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Last Friday night, acclaimed musical duo the Civil Wars performed at the Lobero Theater in downtown Santa Barbara in a show that sold out in August.
In an environment where popular music is dominated by loud beats and meaningless lyrics, the simple acoustic harmonies of singer-songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White create the beautiful and refreshingly expressive southern sound that earned the Civil Wars their quick ascent to well-deserved fame.
Milo Green, a band very similar in style and expertise, opened Friday night’s show. Milo Green has five members: one drummer and four singers who each also play (and trade off playing) acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar and banjo. Each of the four serves as lead singer on at least one of the songs while the others weave intricate harmonies in the background.
As Joy Williams remarked of Milo Green during their set, “Watching them play is like watching a Chinese fire drill. They’re amazing.” After a song is over, the band members quickly trade spaces on the stage and take up a new instrument, giving each song a fresh, captivating sound.
After Milo Green’s last song, most of the band equipment was taken off the stage, leaving only a keyboard, two microphones and four acoustic guitars. Finally, The Civil Wars appeared. Both dressed in all black, Joy and John walked straight to the front of the stage and immediately began playing their first song, quieting the screaming audience at once.
Both band members sing in each song, perfectly complementing each others’ voices with their harmonies as John plays along on guitar. Throughout the show, John switched guitars three times, using each one to achieve a different tone — whether it leaned toward country, folk or pop — in their dynamic range of pieces. The emphasis and the audience alike, however, always remain fixated on their exceptional voices, complemented by simple, unobtrusive instrumental accompaniment.
These two are something special to see live. Joy’s goofy grin stays on her face from the second she walks onstage, in every story she tells to the audience and no matter what song she’s singing. John, though a little quieter, jokes along with her and intently moves to the music as he strums. Their on-stage chemistry can easily be heard in the music, as proven by Friday’s sold-out show.
The Civil Wars expend the effort to perfect the blend of their voices in a way seldom heard on today’s airwaves and also utilize dynamic fluctuations in volume to evoke a range of emotions from their listeners. In each song, Joy and John switch off singing lyrics, while harmonizing in the chorus and on various oohs and ahhs. The pair goes from beautifully belting a soulful harmony to complete silence and then to a single, chilling strum of the guitar. The audience is constantly involved and entranced by the musical diversity of the two performers.
After thanking the audience and leaving the stage, the whole crowd stood up and applauded for five minutes straight until the duo came back on stage to play two more songs. The first of the two was a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” which takes an entirely new and hauntingly playful approach to the pop classic. After the second song, they finally decided to wrap up the set and thanked everyone in the audience for “coming to hang out” with them, as though they were playing for friends and family in someone’s living room instead of a jam-packed theater.
For music-lovers, Friday night was pretty special. If you missed out on the event or haven’t heard of The Civil Wars, make sure you catch a show next time they’re in California and, in the interim, take to YouTube for recordings of their unbelievably flawless live performances — you won’t regret it.