A Shovels and Rope show is also about seeing just how far spouses Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent will push their palpable chemistry. They play to each other, eyes locked, intense. Pity the people in a sold-out room who don't have a good view of their intensity. It's just not the same experience if you can't see Hearst and Trent playing off each other.
Opener Hurray for the Riff Raff lived up to the high praise given to its new album, "Small Town Heroes." While the album tends towards quiet folk, on stage the group's sounds grow much bigger and louder thanks to complex arrangements and leader Alynda Lee Segarra's vocals that range from a deep whisper to a throaty alto. The power and depth of her voice gives credence to songs like the anti-murder ballad "The Body Electric" and the pro-Yoko "Ode to John and Yoko."
Shovels and Rope started its stripped-down, breakneck set at Off Broadway with the fuzzed-out take of "O' Be Joyful," the title track from the duo's most recent album. With very little banter, the pair focused on themselves and their music, inviting the packed house a peek into something that seemed private and delicious, even when Hearst howled anti-war sentiments in "Gasoline."
A trio of songs from "O' Be Joyful" ranged from a delightfully fast and sloppy stomp for "Kemba's Got the Cabbage Moth Blues," a stripped-down drum-heavy "Keeper" and the slow, tight twist of "Ticking Bomb." Lyrically, it's about a stalker, but musically and performance-wise it's a display of slow-burn chemistry in a married couple that still likes each other. A lot. Even on "Sweet Love" they make a trip to the gallows feel like a romp in the woods might happen first, played slow and deep with the metallic shimmer of Hearst's voice sparkling above it all.
They debuted "The Devil's All Around," featuring jangly acoustic guitar and tight vocal harmonies in slow classic country form. It was a good match for the girl group-flavored shoops of "Are You Ready to Die," the title track from Hearst's 2010 EP.
Before "Birmingham" Hearst told the crowd, "If you want to make it a special show let us know what you want to hear." This didn't lead to a barrage of requests; the audience seemed plenty pleased with what the band was already offering, including "Save the World." The song was harmony heavy without drums, and the audience naturally fell into providing a clapped beat.
They powered through the rest of the set, coming back to the fuzz and keyboards for the slow burn of "Hail Hail" to its explosive, howled-harmony finish. Then, with a silent crowd, Hearst and Trent closed with "Lay Low," sharing a mic for harmonies as soft and delicate as the previous song's had been animalistic, finishing without instruments, fading into spent silence.