SHOVELS AND ROPE at THE HAMILTON: Show review by Luke Foster
[Originally published on DC Setlist on August 27, 2012]
Several weeks ago, I received the gift of a song called “O’ Be Joyful” in my Spotify inbox. The track, which is an upbeat two and a half minutes of guitar and banjo with a handclap backbeat, is the title track off the latest effort from Charleston, South Carolina based Shovels & Rope. The song is a perfect introduction to the folk/country/bluegrass hybrid that the group has been perfecting for years, both as solo artists, and together as Shovels & Rope. A few days after falling in love with their sound, I saw that they were coming to Washington, D.C. to play The Hamilton, a newer venue I have been itching to get to for quite some time.
The Hamilton is an interesting club in that much of its audience is seated at dining tables that go in a fan shape on a raised area around the stage. There are two full service bars which are elevated and provide stools and plenty of standing room, and while I didn’t eat any of the food, I did a little window shopping as servers and food runners whizzed by with what looked like a great variety of cuisine. After looking at Shovel & Rope’s tour dates, it’s clear to me that this is not their typical venue. They frequent more open spaces and have definitely spent some time in honkytonks, a far cry from the upscale experience delivered by The Hamilton.
Shovels & Rope showed right away that they were up for the challenge of playing a different type of room. The duo split their time between guitar and percussion evenly, with one member standing and strumming and the other sitting and driving the songs with a kick drum, snare, tambourine, and maracas. They blur the line between genres, and that, along with their beautiful harmonies and fantastic songwriting, allow them to land pleasantly in the eardrums of a wide range of music lovers. The beautiful harmonies bring to mind the honesty and truth you might feel when listening to Johnny and June Carter Cash. Shovels & Rope remind me of Brown Bird, a male and female indie folk duo out of Providence, Rhode Island who have a similarly wonderful brand of high-energy acoustic music that wins over audiences within a matter of minutes. Cary Ann Hearst has just the right dose of southern twang and sings with enough grit and feeling to stir up emotions you probably didn’t even know you had.
The non-traditional set up of the Hamilton was on display as Shovels & Rope began their set. The small standing area directly in front of the stage was completely empty for the first half of the set. It was almost as if people didn’t realize they could go right up front. At about the mid point of the set, one couple couldn’t take it anymore and stormed up to the stage to dance. This opened up the floodgates, and soon the whole area was packed and we had ourselves a square dance.
The duo from Charleston have a great mix of slower love songs and raucous foot stomping barn burners, and they did a fantastic job of blending these different energies to deliver an up and down performance that had the crowd on their feet and dancing for the entire second half of the show.
The whole set was fantastic, but standouts for me were “Birmingham,” the opening song off the latest record, and the aforementioned “O’ Be Joyful,” which had the effect of pulling all those willing and able directly to the front of the stage to dance and stomp their feet.
Shovels & Rope blend together various styles, tempos, and energies with an endearing stage presence. Some great audience banter and what was obviously a genuine love for their craft were on full display throughout the night. There is nothing better than when a performer is obviously having a ball playing their music, and this was clearly the case on Wednesday night. I am sold on Shovels & Rope as an act to see again and again, and I can’t wait to see what else The Hamilton has in store for the music lovers of D.C.
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