Live: Shovels and Rope/Willie Watson
FITZGERALD’S — 10/31/14: Shovels and Rope have played Houston before, but it must have been a while ago, because it seems like I’ve been waiting forever to see them live since I learned about them, thanks to them winning the Americana Music Award for Emerging Artist of 2013 over my beloved Milk Carton Kids.
“Who are these guys that beat my favorite act?,” I thought. So I checked them out, loved what I heard, and started listening to them regularly. For those who don’t know, Shovels and Rope are a husband and wife country/rock/blues duo. The husband, Michael Trent, and the wife, Cary Ann Hearst, switch it up and play both guitar and drums, working in some keyboard and harmonica on occasion.
They were well described by Space City Rock‘s main man, Jeremy Hart, when he said they were a bluesier, more electric version of The Civil Wars. If that sounds appealing to you, you’re not alone. This past fall, a vivacious and festive Halloween crowd packed in at Fitzgerald’s to see their return to Houston.
Opener Willie Watson played folk songs, switching between guitar and banjo, and made for a good warm-up. The highlights of the set were when he got the audience involved in the songs, and his closer, “Midnight Special.” He was dressed up as a cowboy, even wearing leather chaps and sporting toy six-shooters, but it didn’t dawn on me until later that it was a Halloween costume. I just figured that was his style.
Shovels and Rope had their instruments set up and ready to go but took at least a half hour to hit the stage, which built the anticipation and allowed for everyone to get drunker. Unfortunately for this old man, I’m getting crankier and crankier about standing in crowds, especially with my camera (when there’s no photo pit), because I feel like I’m bothering people with my bulky equipment.
So I was getting a little anxious as we waited. Once the duo hit the stage, however, in their “sugar skull” Halloween makeup, it all washed away, and I enjoyed the concert. Apparent Houston native (he presumably moved away early on) Michael Trent announced he was happy to be in the land of his birth, and the full house crowd whooped approvingly in response. They were all raucous and ready to party. I’m sure I wasn’t the only new fan, because their regular spot in years past was the Mucky Duck, and the balcony alone at Fitzgerald’s can hold the seating of the Duck.
Song after song, Shovels and Rope’s passion for their craft and each other was on display. Though they were playing for a crowd, at times I felt like they were playing solely to each other, and we were “fly on the wall witnesses” to their intimate conversation. They were making love to one another via the music.
As a couple and as performers, they’ve hit on something special, and I wonder how they can translate it to venues much larger than Fitzgerald’s. It was almost voyeuristic to watch these two people who love each other and their music so much. Maybe that’s why they turned the lights down so low? It wasn’t easy getting a quality photograph, but that’s okay; I was happy to do more listening and less photographing.
The set drew from all three of their albums and lasted nearly an hour and a half. Highlights included “Birmingham,” which is the song I would recommend first to anyone who isn’t familiar with them. “The Devil Is All Around,” the lead track from their new album, Swimmin’ Time, was another. But my new favorite song of theirs (also from Swimmin’ Time) is “Coping Mechanism,” a ’50s rock and roll flashback in 12/8 time.
Who knows where they will play next time they hit Houston — I, for one, am very glad I got to catch them before they become huge. END
(Photos [top to bottom]: Willie Watson; Cary Ann Hearst; Shovels and Rope. All photos by Jason Smith.)