Digging with Shovels and Rope

IMG_1172Like the White Stripes before them, Shovels & Rope bring the two person, man and woman, guitar and drums lineup to life. The exception is that they dwell more in country roots, with Appalachian gospel seeping through their down-home harmonies and lots of wistful tales of traveling on the road. But there’s more: In addition to rudimentary drum work, Cary Ann Hearst also plays a short Korg keyboard and harmonica (sometimes at the same time). At times, she also gave up her drum seat for the guitar of her husband Michael Trent, who also switches around from acoustic and electric guitar, to drums, piano, harmonica, mandolin and keyboard.

Though the duo showed in a headlining show at the 930 Club in D.C. Wednesday that they have the kind of songs that could benefit from a larger outfit backing them, they resolutely kept it a twosome.

They don’t even have a roadie handing them guitars or tuning, maintaining a busker’s approach as if they were always ready to go back to playing smaller venues or, if fortunes really change, to the streets.

But look around: It was a large crowd that came out to see them and many knew their older songs well enough to sing along without squinting at the lyrics that had been painted on five backdrops behind them — for decorative purposes only. (Also part of the stagecraft: a pair of busts covered and wrapped as if by Christo).

It was a strange crowd though — one of those who fill a room but aren’t entirely quiet enough for the quietest parts, with yammering going on in corners of the room, as if the duo were there as background music for their party.

It’s novel to have a married couple comprise a band, but they would not seem to have that much in common. Hearst, a Nashville native from out of South Carolina, has a sweet voice and the kind of soft twang that brings to mind Dolly Parton; even better, some of her songs do as well.

Trent, from out of Colorado, has a folkie touch that bends toward rock ’n’ roll.

Either could have been a solo success, and both have a few solo efforts out under their names; Hearst’s early “Hells Bells” got wide play on HBO’s True Blood. But together they manage to create something different, when their voices actually harmonize. That doesn’t happen all the time. But there’s something interesting, too, about the rough hewn sound of the two quite different voices at once.

Ten years together, and with a pair of kids, they seemed relieved to be out at night without them, though, as Hearst said, “if anyone needs applesauce or wipies, I have you covered.”

They played all 10 cuts from their latest album By Blood, starting with the title track to begin. But a whole lot of them already sounded familiar, from the travel anthem of “C’Mon Utah” to the remade murder ballad “Pretty Polly.”

The oldies from four previous albums showed the different directions the band is capable of going, from the proto-rockabilly of “I Know” to the heaviness of “Evil.”

But with the fuzz bass of the keyboards, the drums and vocals, there’s almost too many plates to spin  at one time. A steadier hand at drums could free Hearst to further showcase her vocals and get away from the often oom-pah pace of the percussion.

The one cover of the night came at the end of the three songs in the encore, a version of Garnet Simms’ “Cry Baby,” better known from its version by Janis Joplin. With a slightly different arrangement, it didn’t have quite the power of that, though it showed the potential of the two to tackle throbbing r&b nuggets.

With one foot in the dirt and another on a guitar pedal, Shovels and Rope are driving to their own sound that builds from the echoes of the hills (and mountains) where they grew into the rock ’n’ roll of their modern surroundings. And there’s still plenty of miles to explore.

 

The setlist for Shovels and Rope Wednesday was:

  • “By Blood”
  • “I’m Comin’ Out”
  • “Hammer”
  • “The Devil is All Around”
  • “C’mon Utah!”
  • “O, Be Joyful!”
  • “Birmingham”
  • “Swimmin’ Time”
  • “Carry Me Home”
  • “St. Anne’s Parade”
  • “Good Old Days”
  • “Mary Ann & One Eyed Dan”
  • “Mississippi Nuthin’”
  • “Evil”
  • “Pretty Polly”
  • “I Know”
  • “The Wire”
  • “Hail Hail”
  • “Twisted Sisters”
  • “This Ride”
  • “Boxcar”
  • “Cry Baby”
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