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Michael Lothrop

This Little Underground: Shovels & Rope is Americana’s White Stripes 

This week's column wasn't intended to be a female edition. But the ladies ruled the shows I saw, so this one's for you, sisters.

The Beat

Even if Swimmin' Time, the latest album by South Carolina's Shovels & Rope (Jan. 21, the Social), tries to even things out between the considerable forces of music and life partners Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, she's still the undisputed sun of this duo. She's a ball-snatching singer who funnels Dolly Parton presence and Loretta Lynn nerve into a single swig with a raw, cutting voice that should probably have its own carry license.

Hearst has been impressing since the mid-2000s, but mostly as a hot subterranean secret. So I'll take anything that lifts this wrecking-ball voice up to as many ears as possible, and S&R's reach is far greater than hers ever was alone. But if you saw her on this very stage back in 2007 opening solo for Band of Horses as I did, you too might wonder if a couple skate is an improvement for a gloriously wild horse like her.

Well, the good news is that the live beast that is Shovels & Rope is a much better launch pad for Hearst's fireworks than their recordings. The guitar-and-drums duo thing is more often the province of garage rockers, but Hearst and Trent, like the White Stripes of Americana, harness the format to kick out country music with the same thrilling economy. With astonishing punch and personality, they're one of the game's most rocking two-pieces. They were in this crowd's veins within seconds and never let off the gas.

That said, S&R fans – or fans of top-shelf, bare-knuckle alt-country in general – should delve back into Hearst's solo stuff and see if that don't raise any hairs.

Opener Caroline Rose came packing heat of her own. A big-voiced, indie-minded upcomer in a mold similar to Hearst's, she sings with a good, hard honky-tonk edge and can stomp the neo-traditionalist floorboards with enough verve to warrant keeping a sharp eye on.

As the newest signing to Bloodshot Records, Nashville-based Alabama band Banditos are about to go from relative nobody to certified somebody. With a debut album being released sometime early this year, they're currently on their first Florida tour to pour out a taste of what's to come. Might wanna get in line now, because, from what I saw at the Orlando stop (Jan. 21, Will's Pub), this blitz is going to be sweet and hot. Invoking almost every great musical blessing the South has bestowed upon the world, they kick out a thick, heady brand of rock & roll that's maximum swelter and swagger.

As a unit, they're a big six-piece band overflowing with color and horsepower. But even amid all that, it's impossible to miss the nuclear potential of singer-tambourinist Mary Beth Richardson. Holy mama, it's like having a Joplin just sitting there in the wings. Even when just singing backup and rocking the tambourine, her own skin can barely contain the animal within. When given the spotlight, she rises up and breathes beautiful fire. She's not the lead here, but she should be somewhere. At any rate, Banditos are a stacked and juiced band that's just ready to pounce, something that's going to happen officially in the next few months.

Mills Avenue new kid St. Matthew's Tavern has really blossomed into an authentic crossroads watering hole, and the positive musical upshot has been another DIY show venue. A recent punk show (Jan. 22) at the beer garden's outdoor performance shed took nice advantage of a night unseasonably mild even for us.

Making their Orlando debut, St. Louis guitar-and-drums duo Bruiser Queen is a garage-pop band that's a hot little tempest of oldies and punk. What separates them from that crowded pack is the big, feral, tree-shaking voice of frontwoman Morgan Nusbaum. Moreover, where other nostalgia punk acts lean twee, Bruiser Queen goes tougher with riot grrrl tendencies. 'Verbed out, pushed into the red and full-on fun, they're more Shannon & the Clams than Vivian Girls, and they sparked a receptive crowd into a party.

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