Review: Shakey Graves and Shovels & Rope at Crowbar, Ybor City

A look back at the boot-stomping show on Sat., Feb. 15.

click to enlarge A packed Crowbar for the Shovels & Rope/Shakey Graves show on Sat., Feb. 15, 2014. - Brian Mahar
Brian Mahar
A packed Crowbar for the Shovels & Rope/Shakey Graves show on Sat., Feb. 15, 2014.

The only thing I can anticipate about the Tampa music scene is that it never ceases to confound me. Shows I expect to be packed have a few dozen people milling around while the ones I think'll draw only a handful of the dedicated end up selling out. Such was the case at the Shakey Graves/Shovels and Rope show at the Crowbar this past Sat., Feb.  15. [Words by Shae, photos by Brian.] 

Even though he's been playing out for many years, I only discovered Shakey Graves a few months back during one of my follow-the-related-artists binges on Grooveshark. I figured he was a hidden gem, a secret shared by a few. The same for Shovels and Rope. I wondered why this double-billing of country-folk wasn't being held at the New World, seemingly a much better fit. But then, on the day of the show, I saw posts on Facebook urging people to grab tickets to the show before they sold out. The last time I went to a sold-out show, it was when the Mountain Goats came to town. Facebook couldn't be right — could it?

As I walked down 8th Avenue and saw the line snaking halfway down the block and around the corner of Crowbar, I still couldn't believe it but the people at the end of the line confirmed they were waiting for the Shovels and Rope show. 

click to enlarge Shakey Graves, a "gentleman from Texas." - Brian Mahar
Brian Mahar
Shakey Graves, a "gentleman from Texas."

After waiting in line forty-five minutes, I finally made it into the bar just as the show began. Shakey Graves, born Alejandro Rose-Garcia, took to the stage amidst a wall of applause. It seemed alot of people were in on my little secret. Even though he's had quite the peripatetic past, having done the actor thing in Los Angeles (even appearing in a few Robert Rodriguez movies) and then crossing the country to partake in New York's anti-folk scene, Rose-Garcia now calls Austin home. On stage, he fully played-up the rogue cowboy act in a Stetson hat straight out of Justified, well-worn pants and full beard. 

I'll admit Rose-Garcia was the reason I wanted to attend this show. It's rare that the opening act is the main draw for me, though it does happen on occasion (like at another Crowbar show, when Sallie Ford opened for Jolie Holland). His albums are made up of jaunty, folksy, finger-picked ditties with that home-on-the-range, don't-fence-me-in feel for which I have such a soft spot.

What Rose-Garcia played that night could not be called ditties; they were powerful attacks. A few bars of delicate finger-picking gave way to vicious, distorted strums as though he were choking his hollow-body guitar. It's rare when a performer's live act is so vastly different, and so vastly better, from their recordings. Yes, they were the same songs, technically, but just on this side of recognizable. Augmenting the clamor was his constant use of a kick-pedal and bass drum to create a thumping beat and tambourine jangle. Rose-Garcia yelped and hollered before easing into a falsetto, which turned into a croon. Each song existed in this state of flux, whispered to lively, slow to speedy, delivered with false-endings, spoken interludes and hand-gestures, like when Rose-Garcia pointed a finger-gun out into the audience and shot one, two, three times. I've read this style of performance is intentional, that Rose-Garcia created it to keep the audience interested. Does feeling manipulated matter when the end-result is so entertaining? I think not. 

click to enlarge The happy couple play the Crowbar the day after Valentine's. - Brian Mahar
Brian Mahar
The happy couple play the Crowbar the day after Valentine's.
A little after 11 p.m., Shovels and Rope— made up of trucker-hat wearing Michael Trent and his leather-jacketed wife Cary Ann Hearst — took their places. Trent strapped on his acoustic guitar and Hearst climbed behind a simple drumkit. Though the audience cheered for them, the duo from John's Island, S.C. didn't have any of Shakey Graves's attention-grabbing tricks up their sleeves, and soon the din of talking filled the room. I never understand why people pay to go to shows only to chat through them. On most nights, it's a peeve, but during Shovels and Rope's set — where the vocals were much too low to cut through the noise — it was positively detrimental to enjoying the music.

In spite of it all, the twosome on stage appeared to be having fun. They each did double-duty, taking turns singing, playing guitar, drums and synthesizer. Their music had the various flavors of an Americana stew — folk, blues and country — but with two added kicks: the synth and Hearst's voice. In the middle of several songs, whoever was on drums at the time let loose an inspired synth run reminiscent of dancier, poppier, more radio-friendly acts. It added a unique texture to their set and turned what could have been run-of-the-mill songs into something quite special. And then there was Cary Ann's voice, how she could belt it out with the old-timey twang of Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn but with the power of Janis Joplin. Hearst exuded Southern charm and engaged the audience, and the songs that featured her at the helm were the ones that pulled me back into the set. Though the duo worked well together, Heart was the half that shone. Trent didn't seem to mind; like the rest of us, he appeared to be quite taken with her, too.

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