Saturday night was a good night to be at the sold out Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. The legendary music venue has played host to a wealth of talented musicians and been the scene of countless ear pleasing sets with Saturday night’s ranking up there as one of the best. Packed to the rafters with music lovers of all ages two bands took the stage and impressed the hell out of everyone attending the show. Charleston’s Shovels & Rope wowed folks with their vocal harmonies while Hurray For The Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra won them over with her mesmerizing voice. It was a mighty fine night of music.
A veteran musical duo, Shovels & Rope (S&R) is Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent a husband and wife team that delivers music loaded with southern imagery, foot stomping rhythms and the aforementioned vocal harmonies. The last couple of years have seen them rise from perennial opening act/small venue headliner to the star of the show as they continually out performed everyone they played with. (If you attended last year’s Shaky Knees Festival then you know exactly what I am talking about.) With appearances on Letterman, Austin City Limits, Music City Roots, Tiny Desk Concert and more under their belt they embarked on a headlining tour and Saturday night Atlanta was lucky enough to be one of the stops. As fans of their music crowded the stage, filled the balcony and occupied the seats S&R entered from stage left said their hellos and launched into a night of music that prevented all in attendance from sitting still and not singing along. With a collection of road worn guitars and a piece meal drum kit the duo is able to manipulate their instruments coaxing a noise out of them as big as a 4 piece band. They take turns playing everything, swapping their instruments almost as often as politicians swap sides on an issue. Their set list was loaded with tunes that reached back through their history together as well as their solo work. They eased folks in warming up the mics with a sparse almost a cappella number before diving head first into their boisterous performance. The crowd wanted to hear “Birmingham” and they got their wish as S&R offered up the well known tune early but as good as it was the night was highlighted by other songs. The tune “Boxcar” from one of their older records demonstrated their incredible vocal harmonies while blues infused “Hail Hail” showed off the ability to get loud and get dirty. A nice touch was the nod to the supporting act as S&R broke into Hurray For The Riff Raff’s “Little Black Star”, something you don’t see too often. When the music stopped and the house lights came on I took away a few things from S&R’s set. First, it looks as if they truly love and appreciate what they do. There is no going through the motions or following the same predetermined set of songs. Their enjoyment in playing live is evident. Two, their live energy comes from each other. Many times during the night they shared mics or locked onto each other’s eyes as if they were playing to each other and the massive crowd was not even there. Finally three, their music is able to transverse all ages and races. As I hunkered down in the middle of the packed crowd I noticed folks ranging from my sons age (8) up to my parents age (I will not list that here in fear of their reprisal) enjoying the music, dancing and singing along. This is a very rare occurrence.
Opening the night was New Orleans based band Hurray For The Riff Raff (HFTRR). Their Cajun infused twangy Americana music is built around Segarra’s beautiful voice. HFTRR has evolved through the years becoming more confident with each performance and Saturday’s showed just that. They are now in the position S&R was a short time ago and when their opening set ended there was a lot to live up to for the headlining act. What makes HRFTRR so damn good is their range of songs. With the ability to take listeners through a myriad of highs and lows they keep you guessing what is next, and Saturday was no different. The subdued “The New SF Bay Blues” and “The Body Electric” highlighted Segarra’s vocal abilities as she kept the crowd enthralled on each word that left her mouth. As they kicked into songs such as “Blue Ridge Mountain” and “End of the Line” the ever present Yosi Pearlstein’s fiddle playing set the stage while Casey McAllister’s keyboards & slide guitar added another layer to a brilliant set of tunes. Pulling from a wealth of material the set was heavy on songs from the new record Small Town Heroes but mixed in a nice amount of older songs. The popular “Ode To John and Yoko” sound great live and when the version of “Little Black Star” may have been the cherry on top of a damn fine night of music. One of my favorite parts of the night was “Crash On The Highway” a twang filled tune that harkens back to classic country singers which they nailed. When HRFTRR said goodnight fans wanted to hear more, maybe next time they come through Atlanta they will be headlining and people will get their wish.
This was by far one of the best shows I have attended. Not only was the music spectacular but the atmosphere was electric. The jam packed Variety Playhouse gave each band their 100% undivided attention leaving the small talk and chit chat for between acts and after the show. The hall was almost full before the supporting act began to play and was loaded by the time they finished, something you very rarely see. With many shows there are nights when you feel you are seeing the same show they play each and every night, this was not the case as both acts were over enthused and seemed to be happy to be playing for the amassed music lovers. (The house lights were turned up for Shovels & Rope and they looked in awe of the number of people filling the room.)Shovels & Rope and Hurray For The Riff Raff are two bands that are the verge of becoming huge. If you have never seen them live I suggest you do fast so you can experience their music in an intimate setting and not some massive arena or over crowded festival (although they sound good there too). Over all Saturday night was a once in a life time powerful night of music, I am glad I was there.