By Brian Tucker
Halfway through the Shovels & Rope show at Ziggy’s Thursday night I’m certain I heard the loudest round of applause ever for a performer. I don’t say this lightly, especially given how many loud shows I’ve attended in the last ten years, often standing too close to speakers. That said, Shovels & Rope certainly deserved it, playing music both raw and sentimental, thunderous and celebratory, and for a crowd enthusiastic and perhaps their largest ever in Wilmington.
Touring behind their newest album Swimmin’ Time on Dualtone Records, Charleston, S.C.’s Shovels & Rope kicked off their tour in Wilmington. Playing to a packed, excited crowd, the duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent played with fire and glowing personality on a big stage as though they were performing in your living room. Their set ebbed and flowed with energy, moving from feisty or heavy-handed rockers to gentle numbers like “Lay Low.”
Positioned close to one another, Herst and Trent played off each another, whether from the show’s energy or their intimacy. Leaning into one another or sharing the microphone (Trent often bent down to Hearst’s microphone and sang close), they seemed excited as the crowd.
Bathed in purple and red house lighting, the stage seemed larger as they took up very little room there. This image was fitting, that these musicians could be so powerful without a band behind them. Hearst drummed with fervor while singing and playing keyboards. Trent stood like a country gentleman, playing his guitar with restraint even as his notes would explode with thunderous, fuzzing music (like on the spooky and seductive “Evil” from the new album).
The crowd responded largely to new song “The Devil is All Around” and rightfully so. Lyrically poignant and sung with pained beauty, it’s classic Shovels & Rope and translated even better in the live stetting. Throughout the set Hearst and Trent kept moving, whether switching instruments or standing together onstage. Their set up was spare – the drum kit at the front of the stage and a few cymbals behind them. They played a single drum head with two sticks and a tambourine or maraca in the other hand.
Performing with passion and unyielding lungs, Hearst’s voice dominated the room. Between songs she told sweet stories and was kind in giving thanks to The Penguin radio station for “playing us before it was hip.” Trent proudly called The Penguin’s Beau Gunn “an outlaw” with a sly smile. They asked the crowd what they wanted to hear. Someone yelled “Johnny 99” from the balcony, referring to their cover of Bruce Springsteen’s song they recorded at Jack White’s Third Man Records as a 7-inch.
They didn’t get around to playing the song but did play material from the new album, like the great and swampy “Evil,” the lonely stomper “The Bridge is on Fire” and the haunting “Swimmin Time.” A highlight in the show was a medley of songs that included “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and a slow building version of Elvis Costello’s “(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”
Swimmin’ Time is out now.