When Charleston’s own Shovels & Rope performed two years ago at the Charleston Music Hall, it was sometimes difficult to tell who was more emotional about that spectacular performance. On the one hand, the crowd was filled with longtime fans. Many of the folks present that night had been going to see Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent since she was playing solo and he was part of The Films. After years of slugging it out in the musical trenches and following their dreams, the husband-and-wife duo were finally getting a much-deserved taste of success. They had played Letterman, been invited to play some prestigious music festivals around the country, and that performance at the CMH was validation that their longtime admirers were still on board. On the other hand, it was clear that Trent and Hearst were humbled by the reception they got as they kicked into that hometown show in 2013. The pair seemed to still be a bit shocked by the roller-coaster ride they’d been on for the past few months, including having a documentary crew following them on tour to film what would eventually become The Ballad of Shovels & Rope. They also seemed giddy to be back in familiar company, and that show had a very party-like atmosphere both onstage and off.
Fast forward to this past Saturday night, when Shovels & Rope graduated from one fine performance hall to another. After selling out the CMH for two consecutive nights last winter, Hearst and Trent chose to stage their latest triumphant return to their hometown at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. This past fall, Shovels & Rope released Swimmin’ Time, the followup to their breakthrough album, 2012’s O‘ Be Joyful, and last week, the duo performed one of the album’s better tunes, “Coping Mechanism,” on The Late Show with David Letterman. Now us local fans would finally get a chance to hear the material from Swimmin’ Time live and in person.
Before Shovels & Rope hit the stage, the sold-out audience was treated to a set by singer-songwriter Caroline Rose. Accompanied by a fellow musician on pedal steel and guitar, Rose performed songs from her album I Will Not Be Afraid. Particularly good was “Petrified Elizabeth,” a song Rose wrote while living in New York City after she realized she could not live in the Big Apple and maintain a career as an artist. She hails from Vermont now, and her mellow tunes served as a great appetizer to Shovels & Rope.
After a short break, Trent and Hearst strolled onto the stage and took their places behind their instruments. Hearst, wearing a red dress and cowboy boots, started behind a microphone with her guitar while Trent took a seat behind the small drum kit and keyboard. As the pair kicked into the semi-autobiographical song “Birmingham,” Hearst couldn’t help letting out a loud rebel yell. A giant cloth banner with the band name rose behind them, but aside from some lighting effects, the stage was nearly bare save for the band’s equipment. Shovels & Rope had no problem filling the venue with their signature “sloppy tonk” sound. Just as they did at that show back in 2013, the crowd went wild from the first appearance of the musicians. As Hearst and Trent switched places and instruments every couple of songs, they rolled through a generous helping of tunes from both of their most recent releases. The pair have a natural way of mixing their voices that brings to mind the likes of June Carter and Johnny Cash. “Coping Mechanism” got a great reaction from the crowd, possibly due in part to the band’s appearance on Letterman. The song “Keeper,” which they used to kick off that 2013 show, had just as much energy this past Saturday night, while the slow and bluesy “Tickin’ Bomb” absolutely smoldered. Watching Hearst and Trent harmonize beautifully on the lush “The Devil is All Around” was worth the price of admission alone, and the two artists were definitely feeling the love from the audience. Hearst’s voice cracked with emotion at one point as she thanked her hometown crowd for the continued support. After further performances of songs such as “Bridge On Fire,” “Fish Assassin,” “Thresher,” and the beautiful “Stono River Blues,” Hearst and Trent bid the crowd farewell, shook hands, and walked off the stage.
Judging by the size of the audience Saturday night, they might need to move Shovels & Rope over next door to the North Charleston Coliseum the next time they play here in town. For now, though, the couple are off and running on a national tour, bringing music born in the Lowcountry to the masses. I envy anyone who gets to hear these songs for the first time, who gets to fall in love with the music of these two artists after having never previously hearing it. You only get that experience once. Even as familiar as I am with the music of Shovels & Rope, it never gets old and still makes the hairs on the back of my arms stand up.