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Concert Review: The Civil Wars at The Depot

by on May 25, 2012

The big question facing The Civil Wars at their headlining gig at The Depot Thursday night was whether the undeniable charm of the Nashville duo exhibited at their previous Salt Lake City shows at the State Room would translate to a room four times the size.

The simple answer: You bet. Joy Williams and John Paul White exuded the same chemistry at their sold-out Depot show, and their harmonizing had no problem translating to the larger room. The crowd itself, while bigger than during previous visits, was just as respectful and intense about the sounds coming from the stage, making the packed bar as quiet as a library when the duo was playing something delicate, and ramping up the energy when Williams and White did the same on stage.

After Milo Greene delivered a winning set of rootsy rock–watch for them when they return for a show at Kilby Court in August–the Civil Wars took the stage to a rousing set of cheers from the crowd. Williams, currently eight months pregnant, was attired in a black dress with tassles that swayed along with her as she grooved along to White’s guitar and remarkably pliable vocals, and he was dressed in his familiar black suit and bow tie that he untied about halfway through the 90-minute set.

Given that the Civil Wars are still touring behind their 2011 debut Barton Hollow, the majority of songs came from that excellent, Grammy-winning release. Songs like “20 Years,” “My Father’s Father” and “Forget Me Not” were stirring and made the energy between the two performers palpable. The title track, “Barton Hollow,” was introduced by Williams as an effort to bring a little bit the of the Deep South to Utah’s desert, and White talked about how “Oh Henry” was written on one of the duo’s past trips to Utah.

Zion plays a prominent part in The Civil Wars’ history. As Williams mentioned between songs at one point, she has family in the area, and it’s where she got engaged. The Civil Wars also played a few gigs at Sundance in 2011 that helped set them on their  way to bursting through into the mainstream.

A little evidence of how big they’ve gotten since first playing in Utah weeks before Barton Hollow was released–their presence on The Hunger Games soundtrack, on a song with country-pop megastar Taylor Swift, and on their own “Kingdom Come,” which they played Thursday night. Williams asked how many in the audience had read the book, then mentioned that “when T-Bone Burnett calls,” there’s no question that a band will answer. And while White hasn’t seen the movie, Williams said it was his favorite new flick, while he jokingly rubbed his fingers together in recognition of the money The Civil Wars made from their contribution.

As the show blazed by, performances of “Falling” and “I’ve Got This Friend” turned into massive singalongs, and covers of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” — while dramatically reworked– were obvious crowd-pleasers. “Dance Me to the End of Love” was a potent encore after the MJ cover, and the first-set-closing take on “Poison & Wine,” with Williams taking a seat behind a piano for the first time, was brilliant.

My cynical side went into Thursday’s show doubting the Civil Wars’ charm would translate to a larger room, or if would seem stale the third time I’ve seen them. Instead, I was left thinking Williams and White are onto something great, and are definitely in it for the long haul. They need to add a second album’s worth of original material to their catalog, which will come after Williams tackles motherhood for a spell, but there’s no reason to doubt they’ll come back with music as stirring and appealing as the songs that fill their hit debut.

And it wouldn’t be surprising at all if the next time The Civil Wars come to Salt Lake City, they play an even bigger venue than they did Thursday. They’d be a perfect Red Butte Garden headliner in a year or two.

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