Written by Alex Metcalfe
Whoever said West Queen West isn’t a world-class country community is off their wicker rocking chair. Either that, or they weren’t able to attend the Shovels & Rope concert at The Drake Hotel Underground yesterday evening and see it happen. Nonetheless, the West Queen West crowd showed up in full Western gitch (well… plaid shirts mostly…) to welcome Shovels & Rope for a rare visit in Canada.
At 7:45: the Cowboy Hat Count in The Drake was only at 1. The western vibe had room to improve.
Who and what are Shovels & Rope? They are a slick – apparently married – duo of multi-instrumentalists and powerful vocalists with a loveable country twang. Carry Ann Hearst and Michael Trent’s generally light-hearted countenance (look it up, fool!) and demeanour suggests, to me at least, that these two were born to do exactly what they are doing with Shovels & Rope.
I had seen several of Shovels & Rope’s rather stellar YouTube videos that feature the pair performing in seemingly abandoned, yet meticulously well kept, industrial loft spaces. So, while not overly familiar with individual tunes, I knew what to expect at this intimate show at The Drake. For those who did not know what to expect, and who were in my general listening/creeping vicinity, the general reaction I heard throughout the performance was ” oh my goddddd these guys are sooooooooo good.”
And that was true. These guys were so good live. I know it’s an unhelpful description, so I’ll try to elaborate.
While I am unable to name the first song, I was immediately taken by its muscle-y, foot-stomping tempo. The tune let us all know that, despite their relatively nimble stage stature, Shovels & Rope were here to bring us that fun, party brand of roots music. You know, the kind you hear at the livelier saloons.
In keeping with the upbeat introduction, Shovels & Rope followed up Song 1 with a fast-paced bluegrass number, which I will call Song 2. Song 2, while definitely foot stompable, had that kind of pace that requires you bend your body halfway and do a hearty clap between each stomp. You know the move I’m talking about. We’ve all done it in our hillbilly impressions!
Song 2, however, put me in the awkward position of realizing that Shovels & Rope clearly need a banjo in the mix. While the part that I feel could have been handled by a banjo was being well handled by Carrey Ann’s guitar playing, I knew, deep in my heart, that a plucky banjo was all they needed to make the song exponentially better. The Drake crowd seemed enamored all the same, so I held my case and thought no more of the banjos that could have been.
8:15 Cowboy Hat Count: 2. Was Toronto beginning to show it’s red neck? Hmmm…
Song 2 was also the source of my favourite lyric of the night: “I hooooope my momma didn’t float away.” Listen, with lines like that, context becomes irrelevant.
But wait, that might have been my favourite lyric of the night, but was it my favourite quote of the night? Nope. This was: “Do y’all eat fish ‘n grits up here?” asked Carry Ann Hearst to the good-looking, yuppie Queen West audience. Surely, the simple, unassuming beauty and innocence of the question was surely enough to make more than 5 or 6 people in the audience try fish ‘n grits ironically sometime in the near future.
Midway through their set, Shovels & Rope took a hot minute to slowly bring up that it was their 3 year anniversary that evening. Imagine the scene: two fresh-faced country star-crossed lovers celebrating their 3rd anniversary on the basement stage of a seedy-turned-hip Canuck colonial-era hotel. They were out of their element, but I was happy that they obliged Toronto with the occasion.
8:35 Cowboy Hat Count: 3. A few hip looking fedoras joined the party, too. But they don’t count.
It was around this time that Shovels & Rope also began taking turns on the throne. By that I mean take turns playing the little drum “kit” both Carry Ann and Michael would provide backbeats with – while also playing guitars, harmonicas and singing, I might add. While I find that their limited instrumentation did detract from their live sound every once in a while, trust me when I say that it is nonetheless impressive watching somebody play a guitar, a bass drum, a hi-hat, a keyboard, a harmonica and sing at virtually the same time. And both Michael and Carry Ann could do it!
My advice to you? Keep an eye on Shovels & Rope via the Internets as they continue to produce more lovely YouTube videos that have the power to convert even the hippest Queen West crowd in to bluegrass-chomping hillbillies. For live shows, will Shovels & Rope be back to the West End (or Toronto in general, for that matter) anytime soon? Not likely. But it’s nice to know that Toronto can take a break from indulging its own music scene and hoe down a bit every once in a while – it means that quality country talent like Shovels & Rope are most likely always welcome, even in hotels were they charge $6 for a pint of Labatt 50!
On a further concluding note, the audience didn’t make it passed 3 cowboy hats. I was disappointed and will be sure to bring one of mine next time.