Published on January 18th, 2015 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Review: Shovels and Rope Dazzle the Hometown Crowd
Shovels and Rope w/ Caroline Rose
North Charleston Performing Arts Center
Over the last 10 years (since I returned to my hometown from a long stint in Athens, Ga.), I’ve noticed that Charleston audiences generally tend to go nuts for band reunions and homecoming shows, no matter the genre, venue, or occasion. I’ve seen local gigs turn into veritable family reunions at events held in tiny bars, sizable clubs, and big outdoor festivals.
The positive homecoming vibes were dense at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Saturday night when Shovels and Rope — the multi-instrumental duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent — hit the big stage, kicking off their winter tour of the Southeast in support of their latest collection, Swimmin’ Time. A healthy mix of old friends, longtime supporters, and newly drawn fans from Charleston and the Carolinas (young and old) filled the room.
Hanging in the lobby beforehand, Performing Arts Center exec Alan Coker confirmed it was a sold-out show. That’s such an amazing accomplishment when one considers the comfy dives and small music venues Shovels and Rope used to play only a couple of years ago. I remember watching Cary Ann and Michael play as a duo and with a casual rotation of musical guests in recent years at little places like the Tin Roof, Art’s Bar & Grill, the Tattooed Moose, and the deck stage behind the Pour House. But since releasing their spectacular breakthrough album O’ Be Joyful in 2012 on the supportive indie label Dualtone label, the couple have been on a continual upswing, touring almost non-stop across the U.S. North American, Europe, and elsewhere.
They’ve honed their unique craft as a soulful, harmony-heavy, independent rock/folk/blues act, and they’ve worked diligently and gracefully along the way. Their hard work and dedication was documented in 2014 on the newly released rockumentary The Ballad of Shovels & Rope. Their songwriting talent, production skills, and Southern musicality was well featured on the songs of Swimmin’ Time.
Save for a few guest appearances at special events, it had been nearly a year since Shovels and Rope had played in Charleston, and the fans in attendance at the PAC were eager to hear and see what kind of Americana/rock act they’d become. Had they morphed into pampered rock stars or slid comfortably into a formulaic style? Hardly. Cary Ann and Michael are still the genuinely upbeat, comfortable, elegantly shaggy, unpretentious musical twosome that so many fans fell in love with over the years since they first formed in the late 2000s.
First up at the PAC on Saturday night was Shovels and Rope’s special guest for their entire winter tour, young Vermont-based songwriter Caroline Rose. She and a guest guitarist/pedal steel played sauntered out at 8 p.m. to warm things up with a mostly acoustic guitar-based set of folk ballads and country-rock strummers from her new disc, I Will Not Be Afraid (Little Hi! Records). She earned a warm, appreciative reception from the crowd.
Around 9 p.m., Cary Ann and Michael strolled out to a loud wave of applause, taking positions within a tight assemblage of drums, small guitar amps, and sparsely placed microphones at center stage. Their simple set-up didn’t look much different than it did four or five years ago, but the output of rich, full sounds was substantial.
During a chat with Trent a week before the PAC show, he addressed the issue of playing big venues as a simple duo. “We’re always thinking about arrangements and how to put on the best live show possible,” he said. “You see it all the time, when small bands grow in size, adding more musicians to the stage, but that sometimes seems a little bit harder to connect with.”
“We have adjusted the show a bit, but I’m proud and glad that we haven’t really skipped any steps along the way, as far as growth in each market. It’s like we’ve played the smallest place in each market, and then the second smallest place, and on from there. The medium dive and then the bigger dive, and the larger rooms. It’s been sort of a slow growth. These large, thousand-seater shows just can’t be quite as intimate when there are that many people in the room. The banter between the songs can’t even be heard. Some of it gets lost. So we simply focus on the arrangements, how to make the music, and how to be a two-piece rock band. I’m not really afraid of the fact there’s just the two of us because I know we can put out a lot of sound in a big theater.”
For a two-piece, Shovels and Rope can create quite a handsome wall of sound these days. Much of that comes from their dynamic harmonies and how they carefully handle the instrumentation behind them.
During Saturday’s set, Trent casually shifted between keeping the beats on the the kick and snare, shaking maracas and tambourines, strumming and plucking electric and acoustic guitars, and playing a small keyboard to the side. Hearst mostly handled the acoustic guitar, but she’d jump on the drums at times as well. There was nothing fancy or showy about their instrumental work, but the handsomely raw twang and bang of the guitars and percussion sounded great from song to song.
Opening tune “Birmingham” — one of of big hits from the O’ Be Joyful album — kicked things off, followed by the the toe-tapping country-beat song “1,200 Miles” from Hearst’s initial Shovels and Rope solo album (circa 2010). The shouty stomper “Gasoline” (also from Shovels and Rope) revved things up early in the set, as did the new song “Coping Mechanism” — the soulful, swingin’ rocker they loudly rendered earlier on the week during a live appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman.
Other highlights included two O’ Be Joyful fan favorites — the tambourine-accented “Keeper” and the swampy, slyly slow-rolling “Tickin’ Bomb.” Several Swimmin’ Time tracks wowed the crowd, too, including the harmony-strong “The Devil is All Around,” the hand-clappy, quick-paced “Fish Assassin,” and the piano-driven, highly melodic pop-rock anthem “Bridge on Fire.”
It was a fiery, high-spirited, surprisingly intimate homecoming performance that suited the longtime and newly initiated Shovels and Rope fans well.
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