TAMPA — If whimsically twisted director Tim Burton ever made a western, the band playing in the dusty saloon would be the Civil Wars. Not just because the alt-country duo's male counterpart looks like Burton fave Johnny Depp. No, John Paul White and Joy Williams are pretty and sweet, dark and darkly comic. They are also, seemingly, not of this time and place.
In a cozy, and very sold-out, Ferguson Hall at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, 1,042 fans showed up, and stood up, for one of the most buzz-worthy bands in the country. Taylor Swift calls the Southern Gothic pairing her new favorite act, an endorsement that has helped the acoustic-based duo garner good ink. Swift also had the Civil Wars back her up on ornate new single Safe & Sound from The Hunger Games soundtrack. As a result, it's one of Swift's most mature, emotionally rich — and gloomy — tunes yet.
But let it be known that Williams and White — she's from California, he's from Alabama — have more than enough panache to take it from here. Their debut album, 2011's Barton Hollow, is nominated for best folk album at the Feb. 12 Grammy Awards, and yet that genre placement doesn't seem quite right, either.
The pair's acoustic-based music (they tour with just piano and guitars and themselves) leans more toward dreamily textured old-timey country blues, her soprano and his macho counterbalance creating impressionistic ballads about bad men, broken women and the complex bonds we all share. And yet, their vibe is also strangely modern, at least their flirtations and stage banter and playfully retro-graded 19th-century covers of — whoa, this is trippy — Smashing Pumpkins (Disarm) and Michael Jackson (Billie Jean).
After an auspicious debut from opening trio Zach Williams and the Bellow, the Civil Wars kicked off their short set with Tip of My Tongue, a song about being helpless to a lover's powers. The duo immediately jumped into their curious stage routine: Williams' flirty twirl (she often looks like she's about to break into a tap dance) and his gruff countenance, which only occasionally broke into a grin. It should be noted that the Civil Wars are married — to other people. And yet their public relationship and all those exquisite disharmonies are not without heat, and their 70-minute show was fueled by their unique affections.
This is the Civil Wars' first tour of Florida — "It's about time!" a fan shouted — and Williams jokingly chirped: "We'd like to honor your patience with our one and only happy song." After I've Got This Friend, they unloaded some heavy-duty doom, including Barton Hollow's fiendish title track ("Can't no preacher man save my soul"), for which White plugged in to get a little extra stomp.
After a particularly bleak song, White, with a mischievous smile creeping across his face, said, "You didn't come here tonight to be cheered up." That's true. But for all the broken, beaten hearts strewn about, the crowd sure looked happy on the way out.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.