Shovels and Rope provide Iowa City with an experience of radical intimacy

Shovels and Rope is a duo comprised of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, who married only after recording and releasing an album together. Their performances forefront this relationship by revealing a peculiar form of intimacy — one that is afforded by distance. During their set at the Englert on Monday, Oct. 3, they seemed primarily to have eyes for each other, no matter the spatial distance that separates them. Their intimacy, however, was not exclusive: Instead, the performance of intimacy through the playing of music is an event that knits together the band and crowd, past and present, day and night, mortal and divine.

Peculiar to this band is the nature of this knitting: Rather than overwhelming the identities of each person integrated into their night, they take care to preserve the differences. The effect of this strategy is to provide a sense of wholeness predicated on a respect of the individuality of each person present, a kind of communal sharing in music that remains open rather than exclusive. Put otherwise, rather than “tearing it up” as some bands are known to do, Shovels and Rope provides a way of bridging spaces that still honors and respects these spaces, and allows a unique form of connectivity.

Shovels and Rope is Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent -- press photo via the band's website
Shovels and Rope is Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent — press photo via the band’s website

This strategy starts with the relationship of husband and wife as demonstrated on the stage, a kind of intimacy through mutuality rather than by enforcing a false sense of equality. Both Trent and Hearst play drums, keys and guitar, and both provide vocals. Neither one seems to dominate over the other as they perform: space is shared between them. Space — which preserves and presents their respectful difference from each other — is also introduced on the stage and is responsible for the power of their interactions. Unlike the kind of artificial closeness that one senses in a bad romantic comedy, where the plot attempts to avoid noticing what would seem to distinguish characters and keep them apart, they respect each other’s gifts and invite the difference to be noticed. They both clearly are talented musicians in their own right, but they perform in ways that augment each other’s strengths.

The distance that they maintain is perhaps best noticed when they are most proximate to each other — especially as they share a microphone. Hearst leaned into it, looking upward with a hunger or ferocity that would seem almost aggressive, and she was met with Trent’s almost gentle presence that barely covered a sense of excitement and joy, demonstrating how each could accept the other mutually, even if not identically. When the lights dimmed so that only the dim shapes of their separate bodies sharing the microphone remained visible, it showed a moment in which she was not his, nor was he hers: they occurred, together.

Another example: Although insecure or unpracticed musicians tend to watch each other mistrustfully to ensure that the band performs as one, the eye contact that each maintained with the other was different. One sensed that they sang and played for the other, first, and for the audience, second. This became clearest when they would occasionally engage directly with the audience, as though they needed to remind each other that they were performing for us as well — and even though there’s a performative element to this, the illusion they create is not therefore untrue. This seems integral to understanding the kind of warm, intimate environment that the band encourages. Again, it seems as though this can best be explained by understanding this performance as an openness to the other through a respectful distance that includes the audience as well. They made love appear in the distance between them, and allowed that love to include the audience.

Shovels and Rope -- press photo via the band's website
Shovels and Rope — press photo via the band’s website

Their differences could also be felt in their playing: Trent was perhaps a more technically competent drummer, but Hearst’s drumming was more visceral; her bare shoulders could not help but dance to the beat. Their voices alone, I believe, would sustain an entire set but they invite instruments to join them as they come together. The emphasis is on the song, and the song remained palpable even in the silences and pauses that appeared. As masterful as their musicianship was, as beautiful as their voices were, it seemed as though even if these elements were stripped away and all that was left was their mute presence regarding each other — a song could still be sensed. The gift of sound is one that allowed notes to hang achingly, suspended in the space between them, giving voice to a sense of earned and honest longing. Their harmonies and their silences were precise — and their silences as important as their singing, as it allows for that space, even, to be recognized and honored, integrated into a song as a difference that persists rather than being overcome.

This aesthetic choice appeared even in the way that Trent’s guitar would allow each string to sound in its unique roughness even as he strummed whole chords. The guitar had an unpolished roughness to it that allowed more of the band’s sound to be caught within it. Musically, much of what they play seems relatively straightforward (their genius comes when, for example, the drummer will also play keyboard). They tend to stay close to a traditional “American Songbook,” ranging from folk ballads to old country to 50’s pop: whatever genre they play from is one that they nonetheless appropriate as their own. Rather than derivative, their exploration of diverse sounds allows audiences to appreciate the depth and distinction that characterizes Shovels and Rope as a unique partnership with an inimitable personality.

The sacrifice of some instrumental intricacy allows the audience to marvel at the textures of the voices and the nature of the lyrics, all of which also point to the theme of respecting difference in distance, rather than trying to overcome or ignore it. Both voices have a depth of texture and they tend to hang in minor chords that maintain a distance instead of — or at least before — merging and eventually resolving in a more traditional major pitch. Rather than a glossy or smooth harmonization, the visceral friction created when their more rough voices came together made for a beauty that I have not often seen in a duo. Like Trent’s guitar, the presence of texture allowed their voices to move against each other instead of merely sliding or floating above or below. Their mutual vocal descents, which occasionally merged into moaned sounds, presented the audience with an invocation of the wordlessness that the truest moments of love reveal. It was a testament to those true moments when we are with one we love, deprived of language and forced to resort to humming against the warmth of our beloved’s body.

The importance of distance appears here, too, no matter how close their bodies are on the stage, because their tendency to hold notes allows the tone to become filled with a sense of longing, creating an aching sense of distance that allows everyone in the audience to become attuned to the mystery of love that is evoked. The distance that they preserve perhaps becomes most clear when their bodies are physically distanced — when one plays the keyboard on the side of the stage while the other remains center on the drums. These songs were most notable for a spatial distance that diminished the more true quality that become most apparent when they were close. Fortunately, they seemed unable to bear maintaining distance between them for long periods of time.

Lyrically, the band’s songs also seemed to emphasize the importance of distance. One of my favorite moments of the show was when Hearst began discussing California as a way to set up “San Andreas Fault Line Blues,” but Trent corrected her and argued for the need to play the set list as agreed upon. It was a performance of a fault line, a space of tension responsible for a rift or fracture that nonetheless becomes healed in time. The argument was not serious, but seemed instead intended to preserve the sense of difference that remained between them. Moments in other songs provided the audience with a broader sense of scale as the band incorporated other kinds of differences that were respected and preserved in their difference. Whether invoking God or mortality, love or death, or specific American towns (Birmingham, New Orleans), the band seemed to want to create a tapestry capable of inviting everyone and everything into a warm, respectful tapestry of joy.

The one major improvement that the band made since their first Iowa City appearance was in their staging. Whereas Mission Creek had featured a flat backdrop with their insignia, their performance at the Englert featured a backdrop of what appeared to be wooden pallets. On their own, these seemed consistent with the rough aesthetic of the band’s singing and playing, but the band allowed the pallets to become more than this. These would occasionally be backlit, as though the band wanted to invoke the potential majesty of even ordinary objects. These also would sometimes serve as a screen for the projection of images that were thematically woven into the song. Their Civil War ballad thus featured photographs from the Civil War. One song featured a spotlight that hung like a full moon over the band’s performance. One song featured a series of dancing skeletons. Another song featured a traffic scene shot from the point of view of a driving car, which would stop at crosswalks and featured a blur of streetlights and headlights. Perhaps my favorite image was the projection of what looked like plant life, shadowed over the wood, creating an intimate space as though Hearst and Trent were playing alone for each other in the Garden of Eden.

At the end of the first set, Hearst whispered into Trent’s ear and then announced to the audience that they would forego an exit from the stage and a return for an “encore,” and would simply play a few more songs. This is in keeping with what seems to be a more prominent tendency with touring acts that do not seem to require a sustained period of audience whistles and applause. They played, and then ended the show by shaking hands with each other before bowing and blowing kisses to the audience. Overall, the duo exceeded my already high expectations for the set. The past year playing, recording and touring has only deepened their maturity as performers and their intimacy as a couple—one can only hope that they retain Iowa City as a favored venue without putting too much temporal distance between their appearances.

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