The night began with a sweet, mostly acoustic opening set from Caroline Rose, a Vermont-based indie folk singer-songwriter with a Dylan streak who was plainly nervous about the big crowd, but quickly put at ease by their rapid acceptance and enthusiasm for songs such as the appropriate "I Am Not Afraid," title track of her most recent album. She'll be touring with S&R for the bulk of this southeastern trek.
"Birmingham" opened the headliners' set, a natural placement given its status as the song, which tells the story of the pair's genesis as a group. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent have come from those humble barroom beginnings to this, a sold-out auditorium show to kick off their spring tour.
Despite the implied pressure of popularity and peers in the audience, they settled quickly into their usual routine of switching duties between them - Trent began on drums then switched to guitar and back again, while Hearst did the opposite. Their two-person band is fuller than one might imagine, as they add in a tiny keyboard played with one hand by whoever's drumming at the time; Trent can play guitar and kick drum simultaneously as well while blowing on a harmonica, tapping maracas, a tambourine or singing. At times it's like someone threw a couple street buskers on stage and they just decided to do everything they knew how to do, all at once.
Trent and Hearst seemed a bit subdued between songs for their usual standards. Mention was made of trying to get to as many songs as possible, to the point where they even eliminated the usual walk off the stage and back on to do an encore routine in order to squeeze in another tune or two. When Trent did speak, it was to thank their fans for coming, and once to acknowledge his parents in the audience - dedicating a raucous version of "Hail, Hail" to his father who taught him guitar and introduced him to bluegrass music and Chuck Berry.
The big venue brought out the big songs from the band, from "Coping Mechanism" off the latest album, 2014's "Swimmin' Time," all the way back to "Gasoline," a rowdy barn-burner from Hearst's solo album "Shovels & Rope" that predated and named the band - a nod to the longtime fans in the room, perhaps.
When they did slow it down it was even more powerful; the theater venue was nearly silent during the a capella ending of "After the Storm" and Hearst remarked a simple "Amen!" after the near-spiritual commitment of "Save the World."
Trent's assessment of the historical true story behind "Thresher" may have provided the most succinct description, however, of not just that song, but the entire Shovels & Rope ethos, saying it was "Not a political song, just a human song."
That's Hearst and Trent - just two humans making songs. Now, they're just playing them for more people.