By: Rosie Judd
The last couple of years have seen Shovels & Rope explode from one of indie rock’s best kept secrets to one of the break-out acts of last year’s Shaky Knees Festival. The band is used to playing headlining shows in Atlanta, but generally to much smaller audiences at The Earl and The Star Bar. But Saturday night saw Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, the married couple who bring Shovels & Rope to life, own a sold out Variety Playhouse crowd.
The night started with New Orleans based, Hurray for the Riff Raff, offering a beautiful set mostly filled with tracks from their newest release, Small Town Heroes. “Blue Ridge Mountain” and “End of the Line” had the crowd swaying and clapping along to these bayou inspired gems. Hurray for the Riff Raff are no strangers to Atlanta, having played several shows here throughout the last few years and front-woman, Alynda Lee, dedicated one of their older songs, Slow Walk” to Atlanta’s recently deceased Ria Pell for the help and support she showed the band throughout the years, drawing an instant cheer from the crowd. Finishing out their set on a high note with some fancy clappin’ and stompin’ the now full Variety Playhouse eagerly awaited Shovels & Rope to take the stage.
The 90 minute set from Shovels & Rope is always a surprise. They generally don’t compose set lists, so you’re likely to see variation from night to night, especially considering the wealth of material there is to choose from. Most of the songs came from their self-titled 2008 release and 2012’s O’ Be Joyful, with a smattering from Cary Ann and Michael’s own solo records, of which they have multiple. You get the feeling that they’re just “winging it” and that the whole thing could come crashing down at any minute, but together they pull through it and the audience gets to enjoy the ride. Watching them trade instruments almost every other song, trade places every few songs, sometimes sharing a mic and watching the decision making process on what song to play next, you wonder how there can be so much talent encompassed in just two people.
Each of them can play guitar, drums, tambourine, harmonica and keyboards, but where they really take things to a whole new level are their vocal harmonies. The story told through “Birmingham” of their love and how they came together through emotional and distance obstacles is especially touching when watching them react to each others stories and harmonies. It’s heartbreaking and hopeful all at the same time, because you know that the story has ended happily. The harmonies were even more on display with the sparse arrangements of “Lay Low” and the dark and creepy vibe of Shank Hill St. Of course the older tracks, “Gasoline” and “Boxcar” had the crowd stomping and singing along. The only times there weren’t many people singing along were during the 2 new songs the couple previewed from their new record that will coming out later this year.
For those that have never seen Michael and Cary Ann work their magic before, the night had to have been a truly incredible experience. For a band of only 2 people, they are hypnotizing to watch. These 2 are so in sync with each other and their audience, that you are instantly pulled into the performance. The audience is transfixed watching the couple trade instruments, perfectly blend their voices and tell their beautiful stories. Judging from the reactions of the sold out crowd, this couple can expect even more the next time they headline Atlanta.
Shovels & Rope
Hurray For Riff Raff