Shovels & Rope
“Jonny Corndawg says turn the vocals up,” said Cary Ann Hearst at the Rachael Ray House on Friday evening. The engineer obliged and the microphone immediately started to feed back. “That’s okay,” said Hearst. “It’s the price you pay for rock and roll.” Shovels & Rope is the project of Hearst and fellow Charleston, South Carolina musician Michael Trent. They play bluesy country-folk, switching off on guitar, harmonica, and a trap drum kit, while singing impeccable brother-sister-style harmonies (the pair is actually married). Hearst came to prominence with a 2010 EP, Are You Ready To Die, and a cut on HBO’s True Blood. But her partnership with Trent is a bird of a different feather. Their songs seem to come from a different time and place and they may as well live the life they sing about in the Old West gunfighter ballad, “Boxcar”: “Ain’t it just like you and me to go down like that/ Bleeding out of a boxcar, shot in the back.” Definitely file this one next to: Stuff You Can’t Fake. Look for the duo on tour this spring with the Jonny Corndawg crew (who Hearst alternately referred to as “my long lost brother” and “our cousins” at the show).
Daughter of the late Texas blues singer-songwriter Chris Whitley, Trixie Whitley has been honing her chops in Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub project. She’s got dad’s same loose and effortless blues guitar and singing style. At one point, Whitley tuned her instrument mid-song without losing the beat or affecting the song’s melody. She switches between a rhythmic, fingerpicking guitar style and big, pop piano chords and arpeggios. At the Rachael Ray House on Friday, Whitley wore all black and introduced songs in a husky and world-weary speaking voice, though she also sings in falsetto. An EP recorded live at New York’s Rockwood Music Hall is the most recent project under Whitley’s own name, but I’d expect to see a lot more from her in the future.
I have to admit that I did not show up at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary to see Daughter. But having arrived a little early to see Michael Kiwanuka, I caught about a song and a half from the young North London artist Elena Tonra. You could hear a pin drop in the church—a perfect respite, of course, from the madness outside—when Tonra somewhat awkwardly introduced her band’s last song. While Tonra’s voice has the etherealness of Bjork, what I best remember about the trio’s slow and experimental jams was guitarist Igor Haefeli’s echoing Les Paul. It swirled around the church, giving a perfect counterbalance to Tonra’s voice.
Where else would you want to be at midnight on Friday night of South-by-Southwest than in a church listening to this London talent, whose music balances the incredibly fine line between folk and soul music. His voice can show the more subdued spiritual side of Soul Stirrers-era Sam Cooke or the singer-songwriter soul Bill Withers, who is probably his closest analog. The second song Michael Kiwanuka played at St. David’s is still his best: “I’m Getting Ready,” which opens with a few seconds of fingerpicked guitar somewhere in between Nick Drake and early Dave Matthews. Kiwanuka augmented his performance with a second guitarist/bassist who mostly stayed out of the way. That’s fine, since the only sounds TI wanted to hear that night were Kiwanuka’s voice and sparse guitar ringing out through the church.