The Civil Wars at the Ryman Auditorium, 1/12/2012
Most bands take decades to reach the Ryman Auditorium. The Civil Wars took months.
Barton Hollow (pronounced “holler,” southern style) was released in February 2011, kicking off a busy year that included mounting buzz and around-the-clock touring. Without a major label to help them out, the band sold more than 200,000 copies of their debut and remained on the road constantly, earning a few Grammy nominations along the way. Returning to Nashville last week, the city where Joy Williams and John Paul White wrote their first song together, felt like a much-deserved victory lap, and setting up shop at the Ryman — the creme de la creme of Music City venues — was the best way for the Civil Wars to celebrate.
The two took the stage on Thursday night in their signature get-ups: a black suit and bow tie for White, who looked like Johnny Depp at a formal dinner, and a simple black dress for Williams. Apart from a row of guitars and one grand piano, the stage was bare. The Civil Wars left us with no choice but to focus on them — their voices, their chemistry, the way Williams weaves her hands through the hand as though she’s conducting every melody line — but they hardly needed help holding our attention. The two were riveting, their voices rising and falling in identical patterns, their faces registering every ounce of hurt in the songs’ lyrics. The Civil Wars don’t write happy songs, but it’s hard not feel uplifted when musicians are so pitch-perfect, so in-step with each other’s harmonies, so genuinely happy to play a hometown gig. By the time they brought their boot-stomping title track — maybe the closest thing the Civil Wars will ever have to a rock anthem — to a close, the crowd had already climbed to its feet for a standing ovation. And the show wasn’t even haflway over.
Maybe you’ve heard about Taylor Swift’s cameo on “Safe and Sound,” an icy lullaby that will appear later this year on the “Hunger Games” soundtrack. Swift was perfectly pleasant — “This is so sold out right now,” she guffawed, staring at the audience with the same “oh my GOD ya’ll!” expression that graces her face every time she steps onstage — but the Civil Wars still shone the brightest, even with Swift taking lead vocals on the song. Later, after an unplugged encore closed out the 90-minute set, everyone stumbled out of the Ryman and into the falling snow, as though the band had called in some favors with the weather Gods to ensure that everything, even the trip home, was storybook perfect.