Given that my blog deals mainly with music, it probably comes as no surprise that I'm pretty music obsessed. It isn't really the act of listening to a record, CD, or MP3 file that really does it for me, although discovering new recordings and enjoying old ones is definitely something I like to do. No, for me the true joy in being a music geek comes when I can share a moment with fellow enthusiasts. That may be why I love live music so much. The experience of seeing a live act hold an audience in the palm of its hand is almost indescribable. I'm not really a religious guy, but there have been times when I've experienced a live show that pretty much equaled a divine act. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, goosebumps pop up on my arms, I get a shiver up my spine, and my cheeks ache from smiling.
I had all of those symptoms this past Saturday night as local indie heroes Shovels & Rope made a triumphant return to their hometown for a sold-out show at the Charleston Music Hall. The show had been sold out for weeks—it was a hot ticket to get not just here in Charleston, but in places like Savannah and Charlotte, too, where folks were looking to score tickets at any cost. I bought a couple of tickets just prior to them selling out. Sure, my job usually affords me the luxury of getting into a lot of shows free, but I had a feeling about this one, and fortunately my instincts were correct. How close did I come to not getting into the show? I was in the next to last row of the Music Hall's balcony. I figure if I'd waited another 30 minutes or so and I'd have been out in the cold.
For those not familiar with Shovels & Rope, the band consists of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. Both have enjoyed successful solo careers, Trent with his excellent solo album The Winner (which basically hasn't come out of my CD changer since it was released nearly three years ago), and Hearst with her single "Hells Bells," which was featured on the HBO series True Blood. It wasn't until the husband and wife team joined forces, though, that their careers took off like a rocket. After releasing O' Be Joyful last year, the duo soon found themselves in high demand. By the beginning of this year they were accepting offers to play on David Letterman and at New York City's Bowery Ballroom, and then the festival invites started pouring in (Coachella, Newport Folk Fest, The Hangout). So naturally, with a buzz about them like a swarm of hornets, Trent and Hearst had to expect a huge hometown welcome for the Charleston Music Hall show.
Prior to Shovels & Rope taking the stage, the sellout crowd was treated to a gorgeous performance by local musicians Bill Carson, Rachel Kate Gillon, and Jonathan Gray. The trio, all of whom are friends with one another, had never performed together—at least that's what Carson told me in the lobby during the intermission. Well, hopefully it won't be the last. With Carson on guitar, Gillon rocking the glockenspiel (rockin' the glocken, as it were), and Gray on the upright bass, they played several of Carson's songs, most of which featured Carson and Gillon harmonizing beautifully, with Gray occasionally chiming in. Carson has a wonderfully gentle, melancholy songwriting style, and I'm guessing he made a few new fans Saturday night. After playing the title track from his album The Great Whale - Or, Say It; Don't Spray It, Carson took time to congratulate Gillon, who just hours before had received word that her Kickstarter.com project for her forthcoming album had received full financing. It was very cool of Trent and Hearst to give a bit of the spotlight to three of Charleston's more eclectic and talented musicians for the opening slot.
After a short intermission, the lights went down and the venue erupted in a cacophony of hoots, whistles, and rebel yells. Trent and Hearst took their places on the stage, which was empty aside from a drum kit, a small keyboard, a few guitars and a couple of microphone stands. Shovels & Rope then kicked into "Hail Hail," one of the harder tracks from O' Be Joyful, and the joint went completely berserk. No, really. I'm guessing that whoever does the building maintenance on the Charleston Music Hall will likely be investigating why the roof seems to have detached from the building. I've been going to see concerts since I was 12 and have seen literally hundreds of shows. I have never seen a reaction like that at the top of a show. The audience was up and out of their seats as one, and stayed on their feet for the majority of the performance.
With the opening song out of the way, Trent and Hearst kicked into "Keeper," another great track from the new album. It was pretty evident from no matter where you were sitting in the theater that the couple was getting a bit emotional up there on the stage. "Eighty-seven more!," yelled someone from the balcony, a curious yet understandable interjection that would be repeated after almost every song in the set. Watching the pair interact with one another on the stage was almost like watching them perform some bizarre tango, a tango that required one dancer to be seated behind a drum kit. While each musician had plenty of moments when they threw their heads back in musical ecstasy, the really great moments came when the two were gazing into one another's eyes. The look on their face to me said, "Can you believe this?" You couldn't help but smile.
Later performances in Shovels & Rope's set included Trent performing the title track from The Winner, and a gorgeous rendition of "Birmingham" by Hearst. While tuning her guitar early in the show, Hearst voiced her appreciation for being home, and started listing the virtues of the Holy City. The duo then launched into "Kemba's Got the Cabbage Moth Blues," a fast and furious hoedown tune that features the immortal drinking lyrics, "It was a whiskey and a whiskey and a whiskey and a whiskey and a whiskey and a whiskey and a whiskey while the music did play!" A song or two later the pair gave a shout out to local graphic artist Gil Shuler. Trent performed "All Those Words," another track from The Winner, and a few songs later he introduced the White Stripe-ish tune "Tickin' Bomb" by saying, "This song is somewhere between creepy ad sexy." The title track to O' Be Joyful gave way to a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Johnny 99," which sounded perfect re-imagined by the duo.
After briefly leaving the stage, Trent and Hearst returned for an encore that included the beautiful "Carnival" from O' Be Joyful, "Boxcar" from Shovels & Rope's self-titled debut, and yet another Trent solo song, "Bad Luck," during which the duo brought out another local talent, Clay White, to play trumpet.
The show was easily one of the better and more emotional performances I've seen in this town. Trent and Hearst were at ease, no doubt because of the number of familiar faces in the audience. They might as well have been performing in a friend's living room, provided the living room was big enough to hold about 900 people. To sum it up, if you were late getting tickets then I feel for you. This was a show folks will be talking about for years. Congrats to Shovels & Rope on their fame thus far. Here's hoping that there's plenty more to come. Those of us that have been following Trent and Hearst's careers for the last few years know how hard they both work, and no one deserves what is currently happening to them more.