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ACL Fest review: Shovels & Rope

Staff Writer
Austin 360

By Eric Pulsifer

Editor’s note: This article was originally published October 4, 2013

South Carolina-based Shovels & Rope could be a thousand other bands. They fall under the broad umbrella of “folk rock,” but unlike so many of the youngsters on the Americana train nowadays, they weren’t wearing suspenders and they were wearing shoes. (You get bonus points for both in my book.) Compared to most of their contemporaries in alt-country, there’s something refreshingly authentic feeling about Shovels & Rope’s live show.

At 2:30 p.m., a crowd looking to get a taste of some of that old-fashioned authentic rockin’ greeted the husband-and-wife duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst with applause as they took to the stage. (Well, most were there for the old-fashioned rockin’. Some, as I overheard, were looking to soak up shade rather than being exposed to the elements for Jimmy Eat World across the park.) Regardless of their reason for being there, the early afternoon crowd seemed plenty satisfied with Shovel & Rope’s country-fried take on the White Stripes.

They opened with some of the best stuff from their album “O’ Be Joyful,” including “Kemba’s Got The Cabbage Moth Blues” and “Birmingham.” The twosome gathered in close in the middle of the Austin Ventures Stage, one of the smaller stages at ACL Fest with a sparse setup of woodgrain-covered gear: a beat-up kick drum with a snare and cymbal, a couple of guitars, and, later in the set, a synth with a sound so massive it wouldn’t feel out of place in Justice’s hands.

Like Jack White, Shovels & Rope often build songs around the most basic of guitar elements. You’d have a hard time spotting as many G, C and D chords in any other set this weekend, but with the most basic of building blocks comes some of the best rock music. The simplicity was sweet, and the energy stayed up as long as Trent kept his foot on the kick drum and even when he swapped drum duties with Hearst. But, the show hit a bit of a slowdown near the halfway point when the songs got more country and less alt — during a new tune and a Bruce Springsteen cover. Fortunately, things amped up again for the closing with the raucous “Hail, Hail.”

If you didn’t catch Shovels & Rope in person — and don’t plan on seeing them next weekend — the band’s recently recorded set for Austin City Limits will air Oct. 19.