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Last night at the Phoenix

Somehow or another Tuffy P and I independently discovered Shovels and Rope on the YouTube machine. As it turned out, whatever kind of music it is they play, we both like it a lot. We even bought some music (in that adorable obsolete format called CDs).

As you may or may not know, not much gets past Tuffy P. She pretty much sees and knows everything. I don’t try to understand it; I just accept it. One day I was marking something on the calendar in our dining room – the paper one with pictures of Newfie dogs which organizes our lives – and noticed “Shovels &Rope” written in for the 11th.

“How come Shovels & Rope is written on our calendar?” I asked.

“Oh yeah, wanna go?”

“Of course.”

They were playing at a joint called The Phoenix. I believe that last time we were there (and this is going to seriously date us), it was called The Diamond Club. This is one of those places where people much younger than us stand for hours, crowded in front of the stage, and don’t complain about how their dogs are howlin’. We decided to go anyway.

Doors open at 8:00. That’s music talk for the opening act might start around 9:00 and the headliner will come on around 10, unless it’s someone with a bad attitude or unless it’s New Orleans (which has different rules). Had we thought about it, we would have showed up around 9:45 so we wouldn’t have to stand around as long.

Instead, we got there at 8:00. They don’t let you go straight into the club. Instead they herd you the roundabout way in to force you to pass the merchandise table. We didn’t make that pitstop. The club was, as I recalled, a big rectangle with high ceilings, various bars and a good-sized stage.

Tuffy P pointed to the staircase leading up to a balcony area and said, “let’s go up there.” We did, and what do you think we found up there? Padded bench seating, that’s what we found. Wahooo! We took a comfy seat at the front of the balcony and I headed to the bar to get us each a beverage. We watched as hundreds of people crowded into the main floor, where they remained for the whole show. It seems Shovels & Rope have quite a following here in Toronto. Who knew?  I believe you know you’ve finally grown up when you have little interest in standing up in a club for an entire evening. Just sayin’.

“Who’s the opener?”, we asked our neighbours. “Some guy with 3 names,” was the reply. It turned out to be Matthew Logan Vasquez, a guy from Austin who showed up with a bass player and a drummer and plenty of ego. He started off by saying “Hello Toronto Motherfucking Canada.” It wasn’t a really great start. Buddy had a twangy sound with an edge about it. Pretty good tunes. Lots of guitar effects. Turns out he was pretty good, even if he closed his 40 minute set with a longish tune (and I use the word loosely) – let’s call it a rocker – he sent out to the late Lemmy.

They did a quick stage set-up and Shovels & Rope came on at about 10:00 and played for an hour and a half. For those who don’t know, Shovels & Rope are a duo from South Carolina. If you were forced to categorize what they do, you might say they play folky-dolky country rock with a punky edge. You could say that but it wouldn’t do them justice. Shovels & Rope are a married couple act – Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. They’re in their mid-30s and they have some (all good) recordings under their belt.

Shovels & Rope don’t bring any back-up musicians with them, but they tart up the sound by playing multiple instruments. At one point they were both playing keyboards, but Michael was playing guitar at the same time, strumming every few beats (I’m not sure how he managed that) and Cary Ann was playing drums with her left hand while playing the keyboard with her right. They switch off between guitars and drums. Sometimes Michael added in harmonica on a rack, and for one song played mandolin. They get a lot of sound out of two people.

Their songs are remarkably good, and their performance is super-enthusiastic and full of joy. The feeling they get across is they love to play, they love the music and they love the audience. It was a great show! Go see them if they come to your town.

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