Back in the summer I was fortunate enough to attend my second Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee. I went with my girlfriend and we were able to agree on most of the sets we wanted to see and made some fair compromises to ensure we were together throughout the festival. I went to only one hip-hop show and my girlfriend had to sit through that said one hip-hop show (Kayne West). We were together for all four days except when I insisted on not missing Broken Bells and she insisted on not missing Shovels and Rope, both acts being our highest priorities outside of the headliners. So while I rocked out to James Mercer and Danger Mouse my girlfriend pushed her way to the very front to experience the best South Carolina has to offer.
“We’re from Charleston, South Carolina.” What a perfectly short and sweet introduction by Cary Ann Hearst, one half of the married duo with Michael Trent making up the other portion. To say one is the drummer and one is the guitarist is an act of futility as they both play both instruments swapping back and forth many times throughout the set. On O’ Be Joyful, Trent was behind the skins and he banged the cymbals with a maraca and held two drum sticks in the other hand to play his snare drum. When it wasn’t cymbal/maraca time, he used one hand to play a mini keyboard, which mostly played bass-like lines.
Their music takes samples from a hodgepodge of southern influences from folk, Americana, bluegrass, rock, blues and others. Every song played has a sense of familiarity where it might be a cover of a long ago traditional style song, or a reinterpretation of one of your favourite contemporary folk/rock tune. Since the band is comprised of a married couple you get an interesting dynamic. While it isn’t the first time (stable) married couples have shared a stage, think Win Butler and Regine Chassagne in Arcade Fire, they don’t have any backing band to play off of. They don’t really sing to the audience, moreso they sing directly to each other, as the large crowd is merely intruders to their intimate moments.
On the more bluesy songs Trent switched to electric guitar and took over lead while Hearst drummed along. Trent seems to come from the Jack White/Dan Auerbach school of playing, jumping between thrashing solos and blues scales as was evident on songs like Tickin’ Bomb. Trent would lean in on top of Hearst and he would sing into the same microphone she was. Trent would lean so close to her, it seemed like they were almost kissing. Hearst had plenty of complimentary things to say about opening act John Fullbright where she compared his style of playing to theirs. “We thought we could get by on charm and Michael’s good looks”. You don’t go to a true blues style show and expect the band to play perfect clean notes. There is an element of roughness and sloppiness that needs to be present because that is where the artist shows their soul.
Shovels and Rope’s music is probably best described using the title of the seminal album by Brand New, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. It seems like there is a constant battle between good and evil all told through the context of semi-religious songs about faith and love. The God songs are showcased on happy uplifting songs professing love whereas the Devil songs are more to do with temptations and being able to do the right thing. The band claims that they are just some drifters coming into our city, which makes the crowd drifters by association.
While Trent stayed quiet for most of the night, Hearst was endlessly quotable. “A beautiful song for a beautiful crowd” Hearst announced before jumping into Lay Low a really slow ballad that picks up its pace only at the end. Near the end of their blistering ninety-minute set that consisted of twenty songs throughout the night Hearst pondered aloud “This thing is going suspiciously well up here. Let’s try not to go down in flames Michael. If we do, lets make it fun to watch!” By my count this is at least the fifth time the duo has played in Toronto this year alone and the absolutely packed to the seams crowd at The Phoenix proved that they will keep coming out, if the band keeps scheduling dates.
After a very long, improvised set list the band played one single song for their encore, ending the night with Johnny 99. Even though the band isn’t a household name with mainstream music, that didn’t stop the crowd from singing along to most of the songs. I left the venue feeling refreshed and glad I was able to experience what I missed in the summer.
Thanks to Collective Concerts for media access.