Shovels & Rope

I try to avoid comparing bands to other bands, especially in writing, but I will share that in the days leading up to last week’s Friday Cheers, when I was trying to get people at work jazzed up about going, I told of handful of them that Shovels & Rope reminded me of The White Stripes. The two groups sound nothing alike, which makes me feel a little less guilty about broadcasting the comparison here, but they really do have a great deal in common, and I’m not just talking about their even gender distributions and intra-band romantic entanglements. I was mainly thinking about how they stage their songs.

Both bands are (I’m staying in the present tense because I’m unwilling to come to terms with The White Stripes not existing anymore) comprised of just two people, meaning that arrangements are sparse, usually just drums and guitar, both players have to be “on” around 100% of the time, and there’s seldom a bass line gluing songs together. Forgive me for extending the adhesive metaphor, but I actually went around telling people (with performance videos that I’d seen online in the back of my mind) that Shovels & Rope felt duct-taped together in amazing way, and that this was the group’s strength, not a weakness. I’ve overhyped bands before (cue “you can say that again” eye roll), but I really, really wanted my analogy to stick, for the sake of the folks I recommended the band to, sure, but mostly for me.

I tend to fall in love with bands as ideas, and this is a particularly touching one. I love that two married people — Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst — “made something out of nothing from a scratch and a hope,” pulling each other out of that frustrated emotional space creative types inhabit before their talents are sufficiently recognized. And I love the notion that two people can be so effective at the craft of writing and performing songs that they can travel around the country and share their music without a backing band in tow. That’s why, more than most concerts, this one felt like a test. A high-stakes showdown between expectations and reality. Could this couple shoulder the burden that, fairly or unfairly, I’d placed on their shoulders?

Yes they could, and yes they did.

It quickly became clear that more than duct tape holds them together. I suppose I should have expected it from listening to their debut album, O’ Be Joyful, but I wasn’t prepared for how pervasive their harmonizing would be. Damn near every note was sung in two tones, and after a while, thinking about them as two separate voices just stopped making sense. You could focus on one or the other if you wanted, but with both singers hitting notes with incredible consistency, syllables lining up perfectly, there wasn’t much dissonance to draw your attention away from the beauty of their vocal partnership. I also noticed that they spent a great deal of time onstage watching each other. As a result, their timing was both accurate and flexible, so songs with significant tempo changes, “Birmingham” being a good example, could slow down and speed back up and feel totally natural the whole time. (See what I mean here.)

All this togetherness and compatibility was wildly endearing, and I spent the entirety of the show feeling as joyful as the band’s album title would have me feel. Trent and Hearst seemed to be having just as much fun, setting an excellent tone for the night’s second act and the rest of the season’s Friday Cheers performances. That said, one lighthearted moment stood out in a major way. A little while back, I picked up a copy of the 7-inch Shovels & Rope released on Jack White’s Third Man label, and the record happened to feature as its A-side a cover of “Johnny 99,” from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. (Yes, I certainly did derive an unusual amount of pleasure from getting to type “Shovels & Rope,” “Jack White” and “Bruce Springsteen” in one sentence. How did you know?) Just for kicks, before Friday’s show, I checked a few recent setlists to see if Trent and Hearst had been playing “Johnny 99” live, but alas, it was nowhere to be found. But about two-thirds of the way into their set, Hearst announced to the crowd that they had “an inappropriate amount of self confidence” and launched into the cover. I thought my heart was going to explode. The rendition wasn’t perfect, but it was the perfect gift, and as they were playing it, there’s no place on this planet I would have rather been.

I took a crappy iPhone video of the song, and I invite you to watch above and listen to the album version below to experience it for yourself. It’s hard to believe we have a whole season of Friday Cheers moments like that one to look forward to, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about this year’s lineup. Click here for info about tonight’s show, featuring The Lone Bellow and Radical Face. Hope to see you there!

Shovels & Rope — “Johnny 99” (Bruce Springsteen cover) [Soundcloud/iTunes]

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