No Poison, Only Wine: An Evening with the Civil Wars

I met the Civil Wars for the first time, last February while I was still in school. It was the weekend after my birthday, and they had a free live album on Noisetrade. How could I have known then that they would become so important to me? I listened to the album over and over again as I did homework compulsively, allowing myself to fall in love with the lyrics and melodies. When I met my new friend Keisha (through another favorite, niche band, Over the Rhine) she asked me if I was familiar with the Civil Wars. When I enthusiastically replied, she mentioned that they were going to be doing a show right here in little Spokane. I was beside myself with joy. Those of you who have ever been with me before I go to a concert, at a concert, or after a concert know that this is not an exaggeration.

There were many acts of God that actually got us to that day, an unexpected windfall of extra hours for me at work, a 50% off coupon at Taaj, a local Indian restaurant that Keisha and I had made a part of the evening during that first conversation, and an understanding boss who literally allowed me to change my schedule to accommodate the event. With tickets (or a will-call slip), coupon and camera in hand, Keisha and I made our way downtown.

I had forgotten that it was Hoopfest.

Usually, I avoid crowds. Large groups of people make me feel insignificant, and sometimes short of breath. Hoopfest is an example of an event that I avoid. At all costs.

In spite of this, into the fray we went, braving not only Hoopfest, but that other summer plague (road construction). Apologies to those of you who actually like Hoopfest.

We went to dinner at the (miraculously empty) Indian restaurant and shared bites of curry and butter chicken. Even the mild was spicy, perhaps the sign of a really good Indian restaurant. Keisha and I chatted about music, especially the first studio album the Civil Wars had done: Barton Hollow. I had just acquired this album, wanting to brush up before the show, and we were in agreement. We liked the songs, other than Barton Hollow, the title track.

After dinner, we walked over to the A Club, where the doors were set to open at 6:30. It was about 6:15. The place was deserted. We prepared to settle in for the long haul, happy to be first in line, but then watched an employee of the club putting up a sign saying that the doors would open, instead, at 7:30. It was hot, it was Hoopfest, and we were not happy. We contented ourselves with taking pictures of the poster, placed near the entrance to the club. Nearer, though, to the large tour bus sitting in front of the club. The very tour bus that the Civil Wars were likely in at that moment. The door to the tour bus opened, I was poised, and suddenly, John Paul White (half of the Civil Wars) emerged, followed quickly by Joy Williams (the other half). I was struck dumb with joy. Keisha tried to capture the look on my face. We hung on to one another and freaked out, before risking our lives, running across the street and following them into a small, very quiet little Thai restaurant, acting extremely casually. We ordered Thai iced tea, talking together and trying not to spy on the Civil Wars, there, in person, in Spokane. We decided against going to talk to them, hoping to have time to chat later, and to give the famous their privacy.

Walking back across the street, before our beloved band did, we were startled to find a line more than halfway up the block! Keisha despaired, I took her hands and we prayed. This whole situation seemed structured by God so far, so I prayed for a spot right in the front for us. Why not?

It was almost 8:30 by the time we got inside. The room was filled with people getting drinks, and strangely, a large crowd had gathered in the back (for the purpose of drinking those drinks, I assume) Keisha and I found a spot near the front, with about one row of people in front of us. We enjoyed talking with each other and the fans around us, quickly realizing that we might have been the most hardcore fans in the club.

Interesting side note about the A Club: it used to be a ballet school and Keisha and I have both danced in it. It was odd to be sitting, holding our place, waiting for a concert on floor where we had leapt, stretched and pointed our toes for hours at a time. I think it’s very cool when new, good memories are made from old places.

So, back to the concert.

The opening act came on: Rayland Baxter. He was funny, a good songwriter and we enjoyed him, but we were just getting warmed up.

Between Rayland and the Civil Wars, Keisha wanted to sit down, so we leaned against the monitor, only turning around to realize that there was nothing (but the monitor) between us and the stage. God had answered me directly: we were in the very front row, center. Joy and John Paul took the stage to deafening applause (the show was sold out, and it made me proud of little Spokane) immediately, they took control of the room. The presence onstage was palpable. Joy mesmerized everyone with her gestures, moving to the music, but not quite dancing and letting her hands do much of the talking for her. I, for one, was captivated. The two of them together were unbeatable, every song was better than the last and I leaned forward over the monitor, singing every word and soaking it all in.

I lost track of time, stopping to look at Keisha now and then as we hugged each other, as if to remind ourselves that we were actually here, that it was really happening. I truly couldn’t tell you how long the concert was, only that it was over too soon. But, I will tell you that they played Barton Hollow. Joy stamped her foot, they sang their hearts out, and Keisha and I walked away loving that song. The instrumentation was beautiful, the banter between them pitch perfect, the applause more deafening after each song. This was a truly superlative experience.

I know that Keisha and I both cried, though I suspect it was at different times.

When it drew to a close, with the song that started it all: Poison and Wine, my voice was hoarse from singing so loudly and I would have gladly stayed there forever drinking in the music.

We waited in line for autographs.

I walked up to them when it was my turn and Joy looked at me, I barely knew what to say, so I was glad when she said it for me: “Well hello there,” she said. “Front row, singin’ every word.” I took a picture with them (and yes, I did look that excited all night) got my album signed and proceeded to tell Joy about the life threatening run after them to the Thai restaurant. I think that she appreciated our restraint.

As we left I said: “Come back” over my shoulder.

“You too,” she said.

Keisha and I were in a state of something like awe, shock and joy on the way home. I for one couldn’t get to sleep for hours, and the songs were still cycling in my head when I woke up. Even now, I can’t yet listen to the recordings, it’s just not the same as being there. That memory, shared with Keisha, will live in my memory safely, until the next time the Civil Wars come to town.