A more Perfect Union

by Ryan Snyder

By themselves, Charleston, S.C.-based songwriters Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are capable of rendering southern roots with uncommon polish. Hearst’s Lions & Lambs crystallized decades of gothic fatalism fleshed out in the lineage of Townes Van Zandt, Jim White and O’Death, and did so with the kind of voice that sounds like the car wheels on a gravel road that Lucinda Williams sang about. Trent has an uncanny knack for pointed, often biting turns of phrase that earned his 2010 solo debut The Winner a boatload of praise and comparisons to the greatest of folk singers. Together, they blur the lines between artistry and matrimony as Shovels and Rope, a collaboration both in songwriting and in life whose whole is even greater than the sum of its parts, and a live act that can only be described as the perfection of imperfection.

Their stop at the Cat’s Cradle with New Orleans indie-folk outfit Hurray for the Riff Raff last Wednesday sold out nearly a week in advance, a development that Hearst remarked upon with uncontained delight. It was not entirely unexpected though, especially after they outshined tour mates and then-headliner Dawes almost one year ago on the same stage. Dressed in a red dress and leather jacket, and with an awesome hairstyle that would be the envy of any circa-1985 Crue groupie, Hearst plays a textbook salty to Trent’s sweet. Those are the only roles within the band that stick, however.

Shovels and Rope can’t be pinned down to one single sound, but that’s due to the fluidity with which their song presentations change. Trent began on an old Gibson that wears its visual signs of abuse like a merit badge with a harmonica at the ready, and Hearst on a makeshift drum kit with a mini-synth tuned to a crusty bass sound at her right hand — they’re not hoisting a post-modern sound like the Civil Wars, but they’re also not obsessed with authenticity like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. By the time the slow-burning garage-blues of “Tickin’ Bomb” came around a quarter of the way into their set, they had switched spots, Hearst doffing her leather jacket and Trent already having sweated through his sport coat. A few songs later, both were on guitar and singing into a single mic so close that their lips almost touched. A few more after that, Trent was back on drums, but swinging a shaker the size of a medieval mace at a battered crash cymbal.

He didn’t always hit what he swung at with it either, but that’s the intrinsic beauty of Shovels and Rope. Their performances thrive with that sort of devil-may-care informality and open-endedness. They pepper their respective solo material into their setlists along with the Shovels and Rope-proper songs, but without intimate knowledge, there’s no need to make any distinction; they already play on each other’s records. That’s not to say their fans don’t know the difference, however. When they solicited requests toward the end of their set, Trent honored calls for The Winner’s “Kitchen-Hallway,” showing off some of his best, most autobiographical verses while mashing away at his kit.

In addition to teasing music from their forthcoming third album, they closed on a cover of J. Roddy Walston’s “Boys Can Never Tell,” completed by a rare guest spot — Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra on vocals. The next time they come down south will be the Bonnaroo Music Festival in June where they’ll have a chance to play it with J. Roddy himself, and likely more sold-out shows to follow. !