“The best picnic in the whole world” is how Cary Ann Hearst described the Wells Fargo Spoleto Festival Finale at Middleton Place. Looking out on a crowd of thousands, many posted up on blankets and folding chairs with bottles of wine and cut-up watermelons, Hearst and Michael Trent’s band Shovels & Rope closed the festival on a celebratory note — with a few surprises.
One song had a world premiere last night: “Pinned,” a slow-building tune that seemed on a first listen to deal with themes of seeking truth and ditching religious baggage. Shovels & Rope played a few other songs from their forthcoming album Swimmin’ Time (due out Aug. 26), but fans had been hearing most of them since at least as early as their January double-header at the Charleston Music Hall.
There was a rockin’ version of “Stono River Blues,” a song about folks whose livelihood depends on local waterways, made all the more poignant as the band performed within sight of the Ashley River. Hearst took the guitar lead on the rollicking “You’ve Got What It Takes to Save the World.” They also played “The Devil Is All Around,” a song they’ve been using as an album teaser online, but with ominous synthesizer drones in lieu of the gentler reed-organ sound at the beginning.
The band sounded fantastic even in the wide-open field at Middleton, with guitar chords bouncing back off the treeline, but as usual, the best spot to be was crowded in front of the stage with the folks who’d had a little too much to drink. The band’s stage presence was as electric as ever, earning big cheers as they pulled off the trick of trading guitar and drums mid-song. Still a stubbornly two-man band after all these years, they’ve managed to expand their sound without backing tracks or guest players. Trent worked triple duty at times, drumming and singing and playing a keyboard at once.
The real joy of the evening was hearing Hearst and Trent reimagine their own songs. They drew heavily from their back catalogue, particularly Trent’s strong solo effort The Winner — and we were glad of it. In many cases, where the original song was a country ballad or a folksy romp, the band had pared back the frills in favor of a leaner, meaner rock ‘n’ roll treatment. We heard more distorted electric guitar than ever before, and the ever-present thump of the kick drum had strangers dancing on strangers down in front.
The band’s national breakout album O’ Be Joyful established the lead single “Birmingham” as a sort of theme song for the band, embodying their scrappy ethos and telling an encapsulated version of their origin story. But before there was “Birmingham,” there was “The Winner,” the title track from Trent’s album. Like so many of the older songs they played last night, this one felt more rocking than ever before, and the lyrics rang true at the band’s triumphant homecoming: “We always back the underdog ’cause he’s the only one we trust / And if that one’s for the winner, this one must be for us.”