From Obscure Opener to Headliner: Shovels and Rope Return to Norva Transcendent
We were here some years ago. We opened for Amos Lee. When we were on this stage the last time, we were so scared! We never thought there’d be a day when we’d have people come to see us! Like this, like you all! Thank you so much!
With that, Cary Ann Hearst gestured to the crowd at the Norva Theatre in Norfolk, VA, with welcoming arms, and she and her husband and magical musical partner Michael Trent clapped for the audience and grinned broadly. Then, Michael punctuated that timeline once more – from opening act years ago to headliner now – to a new and even more awesome role in life: We made a baby! he said with a child-like grin.
All of which only led them back to why they came back famous, why they are so loved and loudly lauded – Shovels and Rope launched into a mind-numbingly beautiful assault on all of the musical senses – they burst into Shovels and Rope song.
We – my wife Gayle and I – were hovering above them in the disability section, like a helicopter paused in mid-air, aloft in blue and dizzily high skies, unable to land, to come down. That, being something like the journey Cary and Michael had taken five hundred miles from Birmingham, as they intoned about in their autobiographical song of the same name they performed later.
Our journey: We stayed like that most of the evening, or that was the feeling I had, that so much else of what transpires in the world, the jolts, the misgivings and mis-directions of the mind and heart was in abeyance for the one-and-a half or so hours that Michael and Cary traded an array of instruments back and forth, and sang, picked, drummed, swung, banged, blew, and hopped, danced, and shook, at times violently to the beat.
Their journey: The two artists began their careers as solo performers and in bands, then met and eventually married their musical and personal lives together, first one, then the other. Now happily based in Charleston, SC, they hail from Mississippi, Nashville, Denver, and Charleston. They’ve spent a lot of their lives on the road, and met there. And, so it continues, for as Cary said that night, Baby’s Got to Eat!
Delta Mama and a Nickajack Man
Raised their Cumberland daughters in a Tennessee band
Played Springwater at Station Inn
Couldn’t play fast, couldn’t fit in
Caught a ’66 Dodge in Caroline
Got her education on her mama’s dime
She was signing in a bar called Comatose
Halfway rusted on the salty coast.
Rockamount Cowboy in a rock- and-roll band
Plugged his amplifier in all across the land
Athens, Georgia on a Friday night
Saw that little girl, she could sing alright
Spent five years going from town to town
Waiting on that little girl to come around
Caught in the arms of New York City
To lose that gal seemed terrible pity
When the road got rough and the wheels all broke
Couldn’t take more than we could tow
Making something out of nothing with a scratcher and our hopes
With two old guitars like a shovel and a rope
These sections of their Americana Music Association Song of the Year (2013), Birmingham, tell in concise and rockin’ form of the meeting and mixing of the shovel and rope into one musical powerhouse.
I quote the song at length because it also shows the sharp minded, quick and on-target crafting of language into their lyrics, then, with bevel and measure, figured into mind-numbingly fast or, occasionally, slow, heart-stopping ballads.
Check out the lines She was singing in a bar called Comatose/Halfway rusted on the salty coast. The music created by the assonance and consonance – internal rhymes at the beginning and inside the words -, the images evoked in the salty/rustic line, and the deft use of iambic pentameter – the duh-duh measurements – to create the fast and perfect two lines of meter.
And, check out the last two lines, again beautifully measured and full of end and interior rhymes, establishing so cleverly and accurately the significance of their band’s name.
Their tunes can be quite dark, and, by turns, joyful, but always full with meaning, wit, and the power of narrative.
This was in evidence throughout the night in a set list that included, in addition to Birmingham: The Devil is All Around, Evil, the new San Andreas Fault Line Blues, Swimmin’ Time, O’ Be Joyful, Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, and some 16 or 17 other tunes.
I watched one young women standing at the edge of the stage below the artists as she sang along to most every song, with the exception, I noted, of a traditional gospel tune (We are reformed evangelists, Cary said.) and the afore-mentioned San Andreas Fault Line Blues. It was a treat to get to hear a brand new one. Very likely it will end up on their new record that Michael announced would be released in the Fall.
It was an enthusiastic and rapt audience, even dropping their group tendency to talk over the performers, a habit intrinsic to these standing crowds around the country, one so annoying that Jeff Tweedy cut short Wilco’s beautiful, acoustic encore at their Norva performance earlier this year. But, last night, the crowd came to attention and lowered their volume when S & R took the stage.
The Opener: The crowd wasn’t so good to Logan Vath, young, local singer-songwriter who opened, though he had a number of folks in the crowd who gave him attention. Logan gets a lot of music out of his guitar, a rich sound propelling his thoughtful, well-crafted, and nicely measured songs. This was his first solo visit to the Norva stage, having appeared before with bands.
The Venue: The Norva, the name a combination of Norfolk and Virginia, originally opened as a vaudeville theatre in 1917, then renovated and reopened in its current guise in 2000. Just before that, it was an athletic club. A gym still exists in the building, which is a totally unique feature for the grateful performers. The venue is noted for its acoustics, with its first-rate sound system and acoustically padded walls.
In April 17, 2000, James Brown performed the inaugural show. In the next year, Prince sold out the venue in less than five minutes. Bob Dylan, Justin Timberlake, Willie Nelson, Brandi Carlisle, and Old Crow Medicine Show are among the many performers who have appeared there. Rolling Stone ranked it #16 in its Best Big Rooms in America list in 2013, and it was chosen Best Venue by Rolling Stone readers the same year.
Disability Ability: As I currently have to get-around on pretty blue forearm crutches due to nerve damage, I’ve experienced first-hand the Norva staff, mostly big, strong guys with tats and pony tails, who have been manifestly kind and helpful to me as I’ve negotiated the space on numerous occasions.
And so it went. I’ve been lucky to have attended some great shows in recent months, ones that keep me in the ballgame, glad for another day to play. Shovels and Rope gave one of the best and one where they showed some love.
I noticed with interest, while shopping music, when one of Amazon’s public/consumer reviewers, name of Kentsoul, related: I keep a picture of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent (singing their hearts out) on my phone to remind me why I’ve been obsessed with True Love and Great Music all my life and why it wasn’t a complete waste of time. … Hearing their voices circle each other on the verses only to embrace on choruses sounds like the truest kind of love …
That interaction was much in evidence at last night’s show. The duo circled and came together on verse and chorus, so much so that at times, Michael got into Cary’s mic so close it appeared that a half inch more and he would eat the mic and part of her face.
The baby: One result of the love between this husband-wife team is the baby Michael spoke of, who came into their lives on September 9 of last year with the cheerful name Louisiana Jean. I’d hoped for a few words with the artists for this review, but their management said they were letting the couple focus on and enjoy their recently new born.
And finally …
Great show: A shape-shifting experience for performers and audience. The workman-like intensity and meaning of Shovels and Rope created an extraordinary experience in salty, coastal Norfolk.