Usually the job of the supporting act is to ready the crowd for the headliner. In the case of Shovels & Rope opening for Dawes at The Orange Peel last June, it was less of a warm-up and more of an inferno. So much so that the crowd thinned significantly after the Charleston, S.C.-based husband-and-wife folk-rock duo left the stage.
Just a month earlier, Shovels & Rope — Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst — packed The Grey Eagle. They return on Friday, March 7, to headline The Orange Peel, and tickets are already sold out.
It’s no secret that people are taking notice. These days, Trent and Hearst are regularly invited to large-scale events. They will perform at Bonnaroo this summer. In 2013, they played The Late Show with David Letterman and did a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR. They ended last year opening an arena show in Charlotte for The Avett Brothers. This accomplishment is more meaningful in a town like Asheville, long one of the group’s frequent tour stops. People here have witnessed their growth, which makes playing one of the town’s largest rooms a special experience.
“The core of those people are the same people who have seen us play for five people in a weird house show,” Trent says. “It’s really nice for us to play and to see the same faces.”
“Michael played The Orange Peel years and years ago opening up for a couple of Smashing Pumpkins shows,” Hearst adds. “And I first played there opening up for Band of Horses, long before Michael and I ever really had projects together. It’s neat, now that our band has kind of grown through adolescence and come into maturity, being able to play those shows on our own. The people there, they’re like the board of directors of our career.”
Well on the way to completing a new record, a follow-up to 2012’s precisely ragged O’ Be Joyful, Trent makes an unusual report as to the subject matter of their new material: “There’s a lot of songs about water.”
“We didn’t intend for it to be that way,” he continues. “When we started stacking them all up next to each other, we realized that there was definitely a lot of songs about that. There’s one song on there about all the rivers in Charleston. Charleston is very surrounded by water, and it’s always this sort of impending thing — you know? ‘When is everything going to flood?’ That’s something that everybody’s just sort of worried about but doesn’t talk about that much. I feel like maybe that creeped into some of the writing. And there’s a song about a submarine. I don’t know. It just sort of happened that way.”
The idea of brazenly ignoring encroaching obstacles makes sense for Shovels & Rope. In the past six years, the pair have crisscrossed the nation, attacking their material with only the instruments that the two of them can play, ignoring any notion that their formula couldn’t be successful. The results are fiery in their minimalism, with agitated strums and economic drumming, like a more rustically inclined White Stripes. And while plenty of popular bands have made a mark by injecting garage-rock grit into traditional folk — Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers, for instance — Shovels & Rope doesn’t cut its intensity with studio tricks or a barrage of instruments. They’re the straight Southern whiskey to the Mumfords’ light beer.
“The sound’s kind of developed out of the limitations,” Hearst says. “If you added other people, I think that it would take away some of the challenge. It might sound fuller. Some people might think it was better or worse. But I think it would change our dynamic. For this project, the creative endeavor that is our band, it kind of depends on it just being the two of us, and that doesn’t mean that never will we ever have anybody else onstage. But I think it’s important that Shovels & Rope remains literally a mom-and-pop shop. Otherwise, it’s another band. It’s a different good band, but not this band.”
who: Shovels & Rope
with Hurray for the Riff Raff
where: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
when: Friday, March 7, at 9 p.m.
Sold out at press time