Greetings from South by Southwest: Missive 4 Civil Wars + Midlake Surprises
South by Southwest
The Next Day, Missive Four
Civil Wars & Midlake Surprises
It is so big, that it is bigger than itself. Not just South by Southwest, but South by San Jose – the alternative to the alternative fest. In the sprawling courtyard beside the San Jacinto Hotel, it is a high chic courtyard/bier garden with more established bands not looking to be scouted or worshipped.
Instead it is about music and lazy time in the sun, sitting, listening, being. Down on 6th Street, there is a crush and a rush to get in, to see, to discover. It’s not a frenzy, but there is a definite buzzing hive quality to it – which is further enervated by the fact that it’s Saint Patrick’s Day.
But there on the dusty parking lot with the white lights strung and the highest end bazaar booths, well-curated bands set up. World Party, the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, Hacienda, The Black Angels, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears with special guests the Relatives and the North Mississippi All-Stars are all among the closing acts.
And then there’s the mid-card Sara Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, Amy Cook, the Belle Brigade, Gold Beach and yes, the Civil Wars, who seem to be everywhere.
As the sun dangles seemingly motionless, John Grant takes the stage without fan fare. Joined by Midlake for a ponderous set that worked challenging ideas – the prejudice skewering “Jesus Don’t Like Faggots” or Spics or Jews apparently – over melodies that lull and capture the ear, Grant sought to say something without taking himself too seriously.
Not candy-coated, but definitely pleasing in a ruminative pop way, the songs work like ear worms: the more one listens, the harder it is to walk away.
Yet the lyrics are a whole other thing. Borrowing from the snaggly smart aleck deck of Paul Westerberg, Grant’s songs turn on “pissing in my coffee” and “I don’t know who the fuck you think you are/ Can I see your licence and registration?”
Equally deceptive, his voice is a strong thing, moving from note to note with an agility and muscularity that suggest training. But on the quiet, then wide open “Why Don’t You Leave Me Alone?,” he moves from crooing conversationally to moving columns of air in a not quite operatic fashion.
The piano rises and falls. There is a cello which spins around the arrangements. But mostly, it is basic spare rock music. Not loud, not blasting, not even forceful, just present… and in that, the songs stick out.
It was a noted contrast to the Civil Wars, who deliver beauty as a matter of course. There melodies border on incandescent, the voices circling each other in a mesmermizing twist of emotions beyond words – and words that offer morsels of ache, doubt, love. It is an almost opium derived pleasure that the Civil Wars dole out, something almost disorienting yet so pleasing you don’t want to turn away.
Joy Williams voice is quivering, heavenly phosphorous, sliding easily through the melodies. John Paul White’s well-washed flannel embrace is something you can trust. With a single acoustic guitar, mostly strummed with an equally laconic downstroke, the dynamics come from the way they sing: pulled back, full voice, conversational, whispered, wailing.
Somewhere between the Cowboy Junkies lull and the Everly Brothers loop-de-loop harmonics, the Civil Wars seem beyond time. It is not vintage, nor is turbo-modern. Yet in that roots feeling guitar and vocal frame, it is the voices that define the music – and the vocals are emotionally transparent, committed without being wrought and honeyed in ways that even the tough stuff is palatable.
Human voices – in a world where emails and text messages supplant actual conversation – may not be novel, but that audible engagement affords a striking quality in the things the pair tend to write and sing about.
Even a faltering “You Are My Sunshine,” slowed down, attenuated to allow a tentativity that creates an almost dirge, it deconstructs into a song of romantic loss and obsession. Not unlike Giselle at the end of the ballet that bears her name, the heroine here can not fathom coping with the loss of her beloved.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is a pluck that allows the Civil Wars to wink and lean into “Billie Jean” with equal bits mirth and recrimination. Beyond the perpendicularity of this indie mood duo appropriating one of Michael Jackson’s hits, there is the stalker aspect of the girl – who says he’s the father – and the desperation of the hero protesting he’s falsely accused.
The seduction of good pop is complete. So much so, the song is almost a not a non sequitur. There’s enough backwoods noir to it, the overlap is uncanny – and in that, larger connections are made.
Closing with the title track of their album Barton Hollow, the suspended sense of old fashioned music didn’t seem retro, but rather beyond the dimension of the passage of time. More even than now, the emotional immediacy of the lyric transcended the vintage nature of the song.