04.06.2012 Shovels and Rope at The World Café, Philadelphia

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I fall in love with a new band with the same frequency some women fall in love with a new pair of shoes in the shop window. Unfortunately, these romances start out with the intensity of a ball afire, but then quickly burn themselves out. Shovels and Rope has proven something of an exception. From the first awkward encounter looking up David Dondero videos on Youtube, through the courtship stages of their self titled LP, to our whirlwind first date at the World Café in Philadelphia, I have remained enraptured.
Let me tell you a little bit about my new love. Shovels and Rope is a two piece acoustic act outta Charleston SC that features a DIY punk work ethic wrapped around a high plains country drifter format. The lovely Ms Carry Ann Hearst slings that git-fiddle with all the confidence of a wanted desperado while Mr. Micheal Trent pounds out them skins alternately singing and blowing harp to clear the dust from the predictable country/western scene. Their songs cover everything top-forty country is afraid of: bad romance, fist fights, drug abuse, alcoholism and the sentimental joys of the childhood home. And they do it with love. Lost to the song Ms. Hearst strains hers vocal chords to deliver every soaked ounce of emotion possible while Mr. Trent, calm and collected, keeps the song from unraveling into the southern gothic madness of its subject matter.
When we arrived at the World Café, my photographer and I were surprised to see that along with Robert Ellis and Jonny Corndawg, Shovels and Ropes were playing the bar. It seemed a little obscene at first, to have the billet play the bar in a joint that was more restaurant than bar, (the type of place I don’t even like to drink at let alone see a show at) rather than the theatre in the belly of the venue. But then it just became comical when I discovered the act playing said theatre was Joan Osborne. Yeah, I didn’t know she was still alive either.
The bar filled up as Mr. Ellis opened the night, creating a more conducive atmosphere for both the audience and musicians. Then the sweetest thing in a flowing white dress appeared as the edges of my vision began to blur. I figured if she was an angel I might as well have a go, only to discover it was a corporeal presence, none other than Athen’s own Lera Lynn at that. She was just as pretty in the flesh as any publicity photo. I gave her a chat (though she had the good sense god bless her heart to keep a respectable distance from the sailor in port type such as myself) until Mr. Ellis closed out his set.
Shovels and Rope took the stage to a conscientious applause. Truth be told, nearly everyone I’d spoken to was there for Jonny Corndawg, and though this was immediately apparent during the intro heads were turned and conversations muted as the duo pushed fully into “Boxcar.” As Ms. Hearst’s vocals swell to fill up the room, Mr. Trent like some modern day Buddha contained a serene and self content smile on the drums. The song ended to a generous applause, the audience now tuned into the show before them.
With their next selection they decided to lift spirits. Mr. Trent brought out an electric while still kicking out the bass and they initiated “Tell the Truth.” Feet began tapping and the hips on them big city hipster chicks shifting, as them boys stared from across the bar not yet loose enough to ask for a dance. Our photographer wasn’t shy though, he worked his way down the line of ladies offering up his hand to any gone girl willing to two step her way towards a good night. It was only then impressed upon me to ask Ms. Lynn for a dance, but she had disappeared, perhaps floated off to a better place people like me never get to glimpse.
Not to be outdone, Mr. Trent stripped himself of the drums to take center stage. I suspected a solo number so Ms. Hearst could slip away somewhere for a tippler of well whisky and a smoke, but she sat down behind the set. Mr. Trent struck up “When I,” and I was amazed to see Cary Ann pound out the beat while singing herself.
It immediately struck me I was trapped in some sort of anarchist’s wet dream. There they were, up on stage, exchanging instruments, exchanging harmonies, songs and face time before the audience. This sort of equality between the sexes is often talked of, but I’ve never seen it in practice and quite frankly didn’t believe it possible.
Mr. Trent took a couple songs for himself, then humbly returned to his position at the drums. Next Shovels and Rope showcased singles from their upcoming album before closing out their set with more well known numbers. When the boisterous applause died I could see from the strange glint in the eyes of the audience they were lusting after the group just as much as I was.
By this time my photographer had left with some raven haired Philly native, the barkeep had cut me off, and Ms. Lynn became a memory not to be seen again. The apt amongst you are probably asking yourself why Surviving the Golden Age decided to cover an opening act. I’ll be putting myself out on a limb here in answering you, but Shovels and Rope just might be the most exciting thing happening in music this summer. Next you might ask yourself, “Well how was this Jonny Corndawg if his opener is as badass as you contend?”
For that my friend, keep reading. Mr. Corndawg and his cohorts will be featured in our Newport Folk Festival extravaganza in July.