What happens when you give an indie-folk band to a small liberal arts college located in an emerging art-centered city? Chemicals react. When The Civil Wars, the singer-songwriter duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White, performed at Calvin College this on April 8, the results were sensational. Not only did the band play a captivating set, but the audience was clearly engaged with the music as well as the artists themselves. The Civil Wars preformed as a part of Calvin’s biannual Festival of Faith and Music. This is the fifth year for the festival, a weekend of concerts and musical discussions which draws attendees from Grand Rapids and beyond to celebrate the diverse and emerging music world and explore what insight musicians can offer in regards to faith and discernment.
The Civil Wars’ set contained the majority of their first and only full-length album, “Barton Hollow,” interspersed with a few songs from E.P.s. Joy wore a little black dress and John Paul wore a suit and tie, a dress code they have developed for performances and photo shoots. The duo’s flawless voices were nothing short of what was recorded and mass-produced in the form of both vinyl albums and CDs. Their perfect harmonies would almost prompt one to close his eyes, except that the chemistry of the duo on-stage was irresistible. While John Paul remained relatively stationary as he demonstrated mastery of his guitar, Joy could not resist the way the music moved her. Joy has been performing on stage for the majority of her life, and her high level of comfort in the spotlight was evident. Her playful and even flirtatious attitude contributed greatly to her appeal. Andrew Knot, Festival attendee and Junior at Calvin College commented, “The Civil Wars stage presence and chemistry were undeniably enchanting.” Grant Hofman, a Calvin College sophomore, added, “They play off each other so well.”
The show’s success was largely due to the band’s ability to make a personal connection with the audience. Joy even made eye-contact with and sang directly to a young man in the front row at one point. The duo had the chemistry and comfort-level of two young lovebirds (although they are both married to other peeople), and lacked the arrogant air of some big-name bands, who seem to play concerts under the impression that the audience is lucky to get to see them perform.
The duo closed with the well-known song which Grey’s Anatomy featured and Taylor Swift’s tweeted about: the emotional ballad, “Poison and Wine.” After this duet, which featured Joy on piano, the automatic standing ovation was only to be expected, and not just because Ken Heffner had praised the supposedly well-known enthusiasm of Calvin audiences only a few hours before. The band returned for an encore, and as they walked on stage to a still standing crowd, Joy wiped her eyes, and John Paul looked around the auditorium, and the size of the crowd, with a slight smile on his face. Joy then admitted that this show marked the largest show they had ever played for. They also prompted applause and cheers from the audience when they announced that their show at Calvin College marked their two year anniversary of their debut show.
For their encore performance, The Civil Wars and played a cover of “Billie Jean”, which was a wonderful surprise. “We want to try playing completely unplugged,” Joy said at the conclusion of the Michael Jackson cover, before the duo moved to stage right to sing “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Although John Paul softly strummed one of the four guitars that he had on stage with him, it was their powerful strong voices that carried the song easily across the CFAC auditorium. Even after singing all night, John and Joy didn’t need a microphone to show the audience what they could do, together. At one point, I heard the person sitting next to me whisper to no one in particular, “They are the truth.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Article and Photos by Caroline Higgins
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