Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Port City Music Hall, Portland, Maine
Some nights are good for your soul. This was one of them. It was just what I needed, actually. I guess that’s what makes this a longer post than I’d intended to write. Here goes!
I booked my ticket to Florida to visit my dad in February, introduced my beloved rescue cats Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher to friends, and made my way to Portland in time to grab a quick dinner at Empire with my friend-in-music, Aimsel Ponti. I actually saw husband and wife duo Shovels & Rope upstairs at Empire for the first time back in March of 2012. Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst are a force. I was really glad to have the chance to see them again in Portland.
Aimsel and I nerded out about our favorite new albums, recent shows we’ve seen or booked, and bands we love over a delicious dinner, and we got to Port City Music Hall when doors opened. Port City graciously posted on Facebook to remind us that this was an intimate sold out “Evening with” Shovels & Rope, and that there was no opening act. I was psyched about that, too. It was awesome to be home and in bed at 10:30 on a school night.
Aimsel and I grabbed a spot front row center next to preschool teacher Elise (she’s a regular Newport Folk Festival goer) and we all chatted about bands we love (man, that is good for what ails you). Charleston’s Cary Ann and Michael took the stage right at 8 o’clock, and they wowed for two solid hours. Their music is a powerful Southern folky rock and their mastery of so many instruments–their voices, guitar, kick drum, snare, tambourine, harmonica, shaker, and keys–are downright impressive. If I could sing like someone, I might just pick Cary Ann. Her raspy, powerful voice cuts right through. It was an absolute pleasure to be in their company. It was a real treat to be just five feet away, too, because I was clearly able to witness their passion and chemistry.
Cary Ann and Michael opened with a cover of “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” that gathered our attention beautifully. Cary Ann told us about a trip to New Orleans for a wedding they went on where they got mixed up in a pedestrian parade of revelers by the river dressed in beautiful costumes. There was a moment at the river before the wedding where the revelers sang to say goodbye to people they’d lost in the year. She said it was a full circle moment of seeing life and death celebrated together, and it inspired “St. Anne’s Parade.”
Times are hard for those who care about others these days. Cary Ann told us “We will be hopeful for you. You just hold on. We will keep holding on and will be holding onto it for you for when you’re ready to come back to the hopeful side.” It was nice to hear. Michael introduced “San Andreas Fault Line Blues” by telling us about driving their van from California to the east coast listening to Grapes of Wrath. The book was inspired by that part of the country, and they started to get loopy from the drive and imagined being able to hop into the book to tell the characters to watch out for the dangers in the book.
A newer song, “Come On Utah,” imagines a hero horse named Utah that helps people reconnect after a wall that was put up comes down. Cary Ann told us that they used to play four hour rock ‘n roll cover gigs in Charleston and used to depend on Tom Petty’s “Anything That’s Rock ‘n Roll” to propel them into the third set. She said “It was a dream back then that we would be out of that club and here playing for you someday. And on Tom Petty’s wings we will sail into the future.”
I go to shows because I want to have a concert experience. When musicians tell us the inspiration for their songs, I am happy to listen and learn. It makes the music mean more to me. Michael spoke for a bit about his dad, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. He told us that they’d recently had to move his dad into a place, “and that’s terrible. My parents have been married for 56 years and my dad is a musician. We used to jam with him a lot, and we still do, just in a new, weird way. He used to rope my mom into playing music with him and would buy weird instruments like an autoharp for her to play. We wrote this song a couple of years ago when he was a little bit better than he is now. We wrote it for my mother. Cary and my mom are besties. This is called ‘Mourning Song’ and it’s kind of weird to play because there’s real human stuff going on. . .”
Someone in the crowd responded “People can relate!”
Michael heard her and nodded, and said “and for that reason, we wanted to share it for you, to have a moment, whether it’s dark or joyful or whatever with you. And the idea of the song is that after he has left, he left my mom a few chords and a tune to remember him by, which I think would be a sweet thing for somebody to do. Anyhow, thank you for the indulgence.” Check out the lyrics:
Morning song, mourning song/You were always on my mind and even though now I am gone/I taught you these four chords so you could sing your mourning song.
It cuts right to the heart of everything, doesn’t it?
After a high octane, personal, interactive set, Shovels & Rope left the stage. They came back for a few songs, including a brand new one. They grabbed a piece of paper with typed lyrics and sang a powerful song for us (they’ve since started calling it “Oh Great, America”). Cary Ann told us that it is a reflection on the current state of affairs. There was a collective sigh. Michael told us, “Some of you might not agree with all of this and that’s fine. I’m just glad we are all here together in one room trying to celebrate something and have fun together, and I think that’s important given everything that’s going on. If it pisses you off, maybe just laugh it off and have a drink.” Check out some of the lyrics:
There’s a steady stream of insanity/In 2017/There’s a dog with the nuclear bomb in his mouth/ Everybody’s scared, everybody’s inspired/The world is under water/It’s also on fire/In 2017/You talk this, but you live like that/It says “Go back home” on your welcome mat/There’s constant unchecked brutality/A brave man takes a stand by dropping to a knee.
It’s heavy and timely, and gets right to the point. It would piss off my Uncle Steve, too. Oh well.
This was an evening that I didn’t know I needed so much. It was really edifying. If Shovels & Rope come to your town, you owe it to yourself to check them out. If you think a wall between the US and Mexico is a good idea, maybe you won’t like them in person. I think you should check them out anyway.