Reviewed by Roy Trakin.
Shovels & Rope and Willie Watson – El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles
Like The Civil Wars, except these two are really married and are less interested in convincing us they’re swooning partners, and more in simply blowing the roof off the place. The husband-and-wife team of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst switch places between guitar and drums like some Americana version of White Stripes, half a revved-up version of Johnny Cash and June Carter, the other part vintage John Doe and Exene Cervenka (thank to fan/wife Jill for the latter analogy).
Given the band’s name, the outlook is dark, but the feel is celebratory, a mix of vintage rockabilly, country, deep blues, gospel and – sure, why not? – rock ‘n’ roll. There’s an apocalyptic feel to the opening, “I Can See It Coming,” that indicates there’s a biblical flood on the way, which is only accentuated by “Swimmin’ Time,” the title track to their most recent Dualtone album.
Trent pulls out a harp on “Birmingham,” evoking nothing less than The Band at its most prophetic, as his significant other, full-figured and resplendent in a Jezebel-like red dress, keeps the tension roiling. The band’s religious roots show on “O Be Joyful,” in which they ask Jesus to give them strength, while in “Tickin’ Bomb,” the guitar clicks like a timer about to go off. The joined a cappella voices of “Bridge on Fire” evoke a girl-group Wall of Sound, while redemption is the theme of “When the Devil Is All Around” and “Coping Mechanism” has a bluesy/R&B feel.
“Boxcar” has the great line, “Gonna make her money like Bonnie and Clyde,” which gives the duo the image of outlaws, though it is “Stono River Blues,” about the scene of a slave uprising in South Carolina, that has the most emotional heft. The pair’s ability to weave narratives also shines in “Mary Ann and One-Eyed Dan,” the tale of “a war veteran who returns from the battlefield and meets a disgruntled waitress with a lot of baggage.” By the time they get to the deep blues and throbbing bass of “Evil,” with Cary pounding the drum kit like her life depended on it, and the gloriously rocking “Shank Hill Street” and the closing “Hail Hail,” the crowd is transported to a hoedown somewhere in a delta juke joint.
Old-school troubadour and opening actWillie Watson, who had previously wowed the crowd with his version of “Midnight Special,” joined the twosome for a rousing “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” that brought the night to a most satisfying conclusion. Look for S&R to pick up where The Civil Wars left off, except they are a real-life couple who actually seem to enjoy performing with one another.