Note: This was supposed to be a concert review of The Civil Wars show (with special guest White Dress) at Musica in Akron, which I attended on April 1st. When I started to write, I couldn't force myself into the detached journalistic style, so this review reads more like a set of reflections. I think it still paints an accurate picture of my experience of the show. Enjoy!
On our way to the concert, Shawn and I mourn the fact that my egg shaker and tambourine are sitting at home. The thought is so obvious that I can't believe I hadn't considered it: of course this will be an egg-shaker-and-tambourine type of concert -- lots of hoo-ing and foot-stomping and rock-and-sway movements. Shawn and I rehearse a make-believe scenario: An upbeat song starts. We break out the egg shaker and tambourine. Several Civil Wars purists become enraged, say we are "contaminating the sound." They throw us over their shoulders, take us outside and stone us with our own instruments. We live forever as The Egg Shaker and Tambourine Martyrs.
We arrive and there is a massive line. Shawn and I park in a garage and wait at the crosswalk for the signal. The people waiting to cross on opposite side are our parents' age, probably fresh out of a meeting at one of the restaurants: business casual, raincoasts and brief cases. It strikes us, then, that the people waiting on our street corner are all college students: hoodies, piercings and "goofing around." I suddenly feel young and stupid. At the signal, we swap corners.
We near the venue and fall into line behind a girl whose hair is blue. In it, she wears a huge flower. She and her boyfriend turn around to make casual conversation, the type that passes between strangers. We swap bits of Brian Regan humor. Shawn looks mortified. A woman ahead of us in line sells two tickets at last minute to a relieved bleach blonde my mother's age. For a moment, I consider what it would be like if my mom took an interest in this type of music -- this hoo-ing, foot-stomping, rock-and-sway music.
We are through the door. My toes are numb from the wait and my thin canvas shoes. We get wristbanded. Shawn has green, I have blue. When I return from the bathroom, people are beginning to cram together toward the stage. Of course, Shawn must select a spot behind the tallest couple in the venue. I berate him for not understanding that I am 5'1" and I want to actually see the band, gosh darnit. We wait for the venue (brick walls and antique chandeliers -- classy) to fill up with bearded, tattooed and plaid-clad people our age. They ditched class to drive 3 hours, stand in line for 45 minutes and catch their favorite band. Around us, they take pictures of themselves, sip drinks and dance to cool-kid-electro-indie music. It's Phoenix's "1901" and MGMT's "Kids" and even I am beginning to feel the lightheartedness.
More waiting. I am sick of watching people and thinking up things to talk about with Shawn. My voice is already hoarse from talking over the noise. Finally, John Paul appears onstage with a woman who isn't Joy. We all eye her critically. A collective "Who is this chick?" thought bubble appears above our heads. He introduces her as Arum from White Dress, says that she's on tour with the band for a month. He promises us that she is fantastic -- a longtime friend -- and leaves the stage.
She stands in front of us in silence, straps on her guitar, and offers a small smile.
This is Arum's set:
1) Colfax Town
3) Broken Car
4) Blurry Eyes
5) Solitude Land
It's a stripped-down sound: one guitar, heavy distortion, no pick. She begins a chord progression, closes her eyes and croons out an edgy vocal riff. (I usually hate the word "croons," but in this case, every aspect of the "to sing in an evenly modulated, slightly exaggerated manner" definition applies.) We look around at each other, confused. We were expecting singer/songwriter. She is not singer/songwriter. We have no idea what to make of her nodding head, distorted guitar, ballsy-lounge-singer-voice. She is not who we expected. The "Who is this chick?" bubble continues to hover. But her voice -- oh, her voice.
Several of us have started nodding our heads, tapping our feet. In between songs, she shares her past: I had an apartment near the train tracks. I would wake up, hung over, to the sound of the train running by. We laugh with her; we understand that. Or, I wrote this song when I was living with my angry war-vet ex. So when we hear the lyric, "Because of you, I feel evil today," we understand that too. The majority of "Broken Car" is played on the low E-string, with bluesy walkdowns. The bubble dissipates from above our heads. Any skeptic was already won over by the first minute of the second song.
After "Blurry Eyes," after the applause dies out, some idiot woman shouts "Shut up!" Shawn and I glance at each other. A new collective bubble appears: "What the?" Arum falters, makes a joke, stumbles on. Continues to sing, and on the last song, pours emotion: "You don't have to die to go to heaven." Halfway through the chorus, she begins to cry. Stops singing but strums chords. We hate to see her like this: we listened to her autobiographical set and felt that we knew her. Were friends. The song finishes. She leaves the stage with a "thank you" and the lights come up. More cool-kid-electro-indie through the speakers. Shawn and I rate the set an A-, though the minus feels harsh in retrospect.
There is more waiting, but John Paul White and Joy Williams take the stage to applause. This is their set:
1) Tip of My Tongue
2) Forget Me Not
3) From This Valley
4) 20 Years
5) You are my Sunshine
6) I've Got This Friend
7) Girl with the Red Balloon
8) Barton Holler
10) C'est La Morte
11) I Want You Back (Jackson 5 cover)
12) Birds of a Feather
13) O Henry
14) Disarm (Smashing Pumpkins)
15) Father's Father
16) Poison & Wine
17) Billie Jean (MJ)
18) Dance Me To the End of Love (Leonard Cohen)
During the first song, Joy gets too close and hits his guitar by accident. The speakers make a loud popping noise. For the rest of the song, she's bashful and tickled. Us, collectively: "She's so cute!"
Little idiosyncrasies surface throughout the set: during one song, she and he fight over a mic, only to end up singing at the same one. They hold out the final note of "Forget Me Not" for what seems to be forever. His voice keeps switching notes, up and down, challenging her to stay with him. She swats him and makes him end it. They over-articulate the word "mel-oh-dee" and again are laughing with one another. At the beginning of "I've Got This Friend," they rock back and forth in unison, and there is a joy about it. She fixes his bow tie on a downbeat.
After "20 years," Joy audibly addresses the crowd for the first time and says hello. This is a departure from how connected we felt to Arum during her set. It's also a departure from what I've gathered of their prior shows in YouTube videos. Throughout the concert, in between songs, I turn to Shawn. "Why aren't they talking to us?" I feel cheap. Sorry for myself. Finally, they talk.
"You are my Sunshine" was written by the Governor of Louisiana, says Joy. "It's actually an incredibly depressing song."
"Which is why we're covering it," John Paul says.
Before "Disarm," Joy speaks to us for a second time. Says they both listened to different styles of music growing up. "I didn't grow up listening to death metal."
"Your loss," he says.
I guess what I'm trying to say is, I really do hate it when bands play one song and then another and then another, as if all they want to do is get through it and get out of there. As if they've forgotten to breathe. To look at people. To tell stories. After all, stories connect and transform us. God spoke Truth into the world in the form of a narrative and it was good. Is good.
Aside from this lack of narrative, the show was fabulous. They both looked smashing, sang and played well. Shawn was impressed by the control she had over her voice -- and her range. One of the high strings on his guitar fell out of tune for "Falling" and he covered beautifully, playing power chords instead. I was especially struck by the lyrics to "I've Got This Friend" and "From this Valley" -- and struck also by the way they were performed. (I recall a man at church coming up to me after I'd sung special music. He'd said, "It wasn't just the words of the song -- it was the way you sang them that made them mean something." The same sentiment applies here.) I'd never heard either song before. It was everything an intimate show should be. Is it wrong to feel disappointed?
The Civil Wars exit the stage and the lights come up. I contemplate asking the tall couple who stood like a barricade in front of me throughout the show if they would send me the photos they'd taken. I'd hoped to write a more "professional" review and put pictures with it. But I chicken and we leave. We call Karin, an old friend from high school who had been tied up with homework during the concert, and meet her for grub at a Steak and Shake three exits north of downtown Akron. The food is good and catching up is good and I know that I am seen and heard. We tell stories, look at each other. Breathe. On the drive home, I say, "After all these years, we're still doing the same thing: meeting up, spending money on food, talking." It's then that I realize: the opposite of narrative is "shut up."