The Civil Wars at The Ryman, 1/12/12

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As regular readers know, The Spin clan can be a pretty miserable bunch at times. And never were we more miserable than when making our way through downtown last night — wincing, gritting our teeth and furrowing our brows as we trudged under-dressed through wind, snow and frigid temperatures.

By the time we arrived at The Ryman, we could feel hypothermia beginning to set in. It was cold. As fuck. But not inside the auditorium, where The Civil Wars — Nashville’s off-Music Row breakout artists of 2011 — had the joint filled to the last pew with friends, family and fans. Singer Joy Williams even remarked at one point that she felt like she was in a grand living room. To an extent she was. Only in Nashville is a band’s story of meeting at a writing session — a session that neither of its members wanted to attend — met with laughs and cheers. And only in Nashville does a mid-show guest appearance from Taylor Swift seem totally par for the course.

“I’m gonna need to wear adult diapers that night,” Williams told the Scene last fall in nerve-wracked anticipation of last night’s Ryman homecoming. But onstage it was waterproof mascara the singer joked that she’d need. And John Paul White, the duo’s other half, would later remark that this is the night he’d dreamed about since he picked up his first guitar.

If that wasn’t enough to thaw us out, nothing was.

Much like the arrangements of the band’s minor-tinged tunes, their stage set-up was stark and minimal — featuring nothing more than a curtain, a grand piano and a rack of guitars book-ending the two singers who — save for moments when Williams would play piano — were within arm's reach of one another all night.

While all smiles and tears of joy — with Williams wearing a black dress and White in his now trademark black tux — the pair looked like they were dressed for a funeral, not a homecoming celebration. But that’s the look that fits the yearning, woebegone ballads (like “My Father’s Father” and their sleeper hit “Poison and Wine”) that are their forte. The duo even joked about their penchant for musical morosity when introducing the bouncy “I’ve Got This Friend” as their lone “happy song.” Late in the show the band would further prove that they are folk pop’s answer to goth melancholy with a cover of Smashing Pumpkins' “Disarm.” Despite a set list that plays through like a trail of tears, this was far from a downtrodden affair. Not only does the band equalize their mournful melodies with an onstage report of playful, quick-witted banter and palpably genuine appreciation to have an audience so eager to see and hear them, but their aim is to lift their listeners out of the doldrums.

It works. Those in the enraptured audience appeared far from hanging themselves as they hung on every note the harmonizing duo bathed them in. The crowd even complimented the trad-folky foot-stomper “From This Valley” with a good ol’ revival-style clap-along and stood up to rock out during “Barton Hollow,” the closest thing the band has to a rock song.

The pitch-perfect vocal chemistry between Williams and White as they crescendo and fill the room in ascending harmony is undeniable. It’s uplifting. And it makes it easy to see why this was just as spellbinding and transcendent an experience for the fans as it was for the band. During a mid-show piss break, we even noticed a couple dudes mouthing along to the lyrics while utilizing urinals — a definite first for The Spin — as the show’s audio was piped into the bathrooms.

While The Civil Wars may be an endearing indie success story, nothing gets a crowd off like a superstar. And the place erupted as the band’s biggest champion, Taylor Swift, joined them for the live debut of “Safe and Sound,” the track the trio recently cut together. As always, Swift took to the stage with a look of mouth-agape stupefaction, as if she was a fan plucked by surprise from the audience to join her favorite band in song. Of course, Swift got her game face on when the time came to make the musical magic happen. Check it out:

The 90-minute show ended with a pair of covers — Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” which they adapted as a finger-plucked folk ditty, and Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” which the pair couldn’t resist performing off-mic to a pin-drop silent crowd in the pews. We left realizing that this was probably the classiest we’ve felt since seeing Cohen himself at TPAC. And the rest of the crowd radiated as they walked out into the falling snow, making it clear that The Civil Wars’ first time selling out The Ryman probably won’t be their last.

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