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Shovels & Rope, Austin TX
Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, better known as the duo Shovels and Rope, have been stitching their hearts together with song since before the 2008 release of their self-titled debut record.
And in that creatively intimate space, they have forged a shared musical identity that is rough-hewn and well worn but never ragged or thin. Hearst’s southern fried twang glazes Trent’s raw tenor, fueling an often raucous cadence that yields high-octane harmonies. Threads of blues, punk, roots country and rock and roll mingle together below, weaving a stout sonic fabric worthy of a verse in Guy Clark’s “Stuff That Works”.
Between recording and releasing a new album, By Blood, planning High Water, their headlining festival in South Carolina, and welcoming their second child, it’s been a busy year. Juggling, it seems, suits them and they rolled into Austin last Saturday to play a show in support of the new record.
At a sold-out capacity of just 1050 people, the Historic Scoot Inn proved to be a perfect venue for artists that thrive in intimate space. Drawing on a cross-section of their catalog but anchored in By Blood, the duo tore through a blistering set with highlights that included “I’m Comin’ Out” “Birmingham and “C’mon Utah”.
“I’m Comin’ Out”, a foot-stomping, fist-pumping, fuzzy earworm, traced an existential trajectory from apprehension to emancipation. Opening with imagery of a fragile, newborn fawn standing meekly in the middle of the road, shaky and unsure, Cary Ann dropped the hammer when she stepped to the mic to sing:
The instrumental break and solo that followed opened with screeching feedback, which stood out as an insightful musical metaphor to illustrate the turbulent process that is change culminating in liberation.
Did their new bundle of joy influence “I’m Comin’ Out”? Absolutely. Could a similar trajectory also apply in a broader sense to a metaphysical awakening for all beings? Almost certainly. I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of spiritual double shot I need on a daily basis. “Birmingham”, perhaps their most well known and ostensibly autobiographical song, is unassailable testimony to their destiny as artists bound by blood. Always a crowd-pleaser, likely because it captures, or at least hints at, the magic of what makes them tick; the set erupted with an early emotional peak when they sang:
The aforementioned harmonies simmered then soared during “C’mon Utah”, an ode to a calico maned horse. Sung from the perspective of a weary traveler trying to make it back to Colorado, it evoked the timeless, magnetic sense of place that draws so many folks to the American West.
Those wild landscapes have long been an elixir for broken spirits, so here’s to ya, Utah; I hope y’all made it home in one piece.
“Hammer” extolled the virtues of honest, by the sweat of the brow labor, and “Mississippi Nuthin’” told a tale of friendship founded on unequal social footing. Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” was a rollicking send-off, but I ultimately found myself focused more on their rapport than the details of individual songs.
Rotating between drums, guitar and keys they blurred the line between objective roles with aplomb. Occasionally sharing the mic, they radiated a singular connection and seemed to sing as much for one another as the audience. Unlike the waitress in Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend”, a song they’ve covered, they’ve found their magic kiss and watching them perform was a glimpse of the mojo that animates the yin and the yang.
As is the case with the best music, theirs packs a visceral punch. It’s an emotionally tangible tapestry spun on a highway loom, and wherever that road may lead, they’ve got a full tank of gas. Standing under the stars after the show it occurred to me that perhaps the magnetic sense of place people feel for the West is strongest and most true when felt and found in another person. Well played, Shovels and Rope. Well played indeed
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