Review: Shovels & Rope at the 9:30 Club

WASHINGTON, April 10, 2013 —Watching a husband and wife duo perform together on stage is often one of the more interesting concert experiences one may encounter. When the couple is musically and emotionally in synch and hitting all the cues, there is a level of intimacy in their music that is identifiable, yet hard to define.

On the other hand, given daily tensions ranging from creative issues to the pressures of touring, that kind of equilibrium can be hard for the partnership to achieve. On stage it is hard to fake the state of a relationship, but when genuine closeness shines through, it can make all the difference for an audience.

This is the kind of effect Shovels & Rope were looking for during their set at the 9:30 Club. South Carolinians Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are billed as a folk duo, but that is mainly because they do not employ anything outside of a guitar and drums in their set. There is still a strong country vibe flowing through their sound.

Hearst has had some success outside of Shovels & Rope as a solo artist, so it would be understandable if she dominated the band’s general outlook. But, seeing the live shows that couldn’t be further from the truth.

While Hearst may be the most well known member of the duo, it’s hard to think of a more balanced partnership than the one that appeared on stage recently at the 9:30 Club.

Oddly enough, the signifiers are there before the band even steps on stage to begin their set.  Take the band’s logo for example. Most people will overlook the ampersand in the band’s name because it sometimes can be used arbitrarily, but it seems here to signify the closeness of Hearst and Trent as collaborators. 

SEE RELATED: Preview: Hot Chip at the 9:30 Club

As Shovels & Rope start their show, they re-order audience expectations as Hearst opens on drums with Trent leading the way. The arrangement persists with the first few songs before Trent and Hearst switch places, only to swap seats again later on.

But this kind of interchangeability demonstrates both the closeness and versatility of each musician, not to mention their confidence in each other’s abilities.

It is also hard not to notice how well Hearst and Trent play off each other up on stage. Rather than the expected and somewhat contrived give and take one can experience with such a duo, Shovels & Rope are “all in” for the most part. None of their songs feature just a single performer, and there’s very little of the “his take/her take” artificiality that some duos like to affect.

Instead, Trent and Hearst prefer to sing in harmony, for the most part, diverging into unison passages when the effect seems appropriate.

A lot of the country feel of Shovels & Rope’s sound comes from Hearst’s voice, which is distinguished by an emotive, full-bodied depth of tone. She is able to persuade the audience of the genuineness of joy and melancholy inherent in each of their songs. Trent’s voice isn’t quite as distinctive as Hearst’s.

But he doesn’t hold back during his own contributions, adding considerable depth to the ensemble’s overall sound.

As their music travels through the emotional gamut, it becomes easier and easier to see how important it is to Hearst and Trent that they are performing together onstage. Not only do they seem to enjoy performing in front of an audience like the one at the 9:30 Club, but they just seem happy to be playing music together.

This goes a long way toward understanding the audience appeal of Shovels & Rope.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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