As one of the early acts at Kansas City’s Porchfest this year, the Shapiro Brothers set their latest songs free from the comfort of a Valentine neighborhood porch at high noon on a gorgeous autumn day. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect venue for a new sound from two familiar voices.
First things first: Shapiro Brothers clearly aren’t brothers, and they’re not named after the 1920s New York sibling gangsters from the era of Murder, Inc. They’re the new incarnation of real-life couple Mikal Shapiro and Chad Brothers, who’ve played together for ages. (It’s similar to the naming gambits of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who, when they sing her songs, are “Gillian Welch,” and when they play his, are “The Dave Rawlings Machine.”)
With this eight-song EP, Shapiro and Brothers debut a quieter sound. Shapiro’s solo records, including last year’s The Musical, are more wide-ranging, mingling jazz, country, rock, and even a splash of cabaret in songs as barbed as they are beautiful. Brothers, an adept flat-picker who grew up in Winfield, Kansas (of Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival fame) mines a vein closer to bluegrass and old-time country in his aptly-named group Old Sound. Here, Shapiro’s voice is a little gentler and Brothers’ voice gets a little scuffed up.
As Shapiro Brothers, their voices and guitars mix in generally straightforward melodies — more Joan Baez and Bob Dylan than Sonny and Cher or Shovels and Rope. Their covers, including Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and a lyrically rugged version of “Mockingbird” (“Mama’s going to buy you a punching glove”), would be a perfect fit for a ‘60s folk revival anthology. Their surprising cover of “Home on the Range” retrieves the Kansas state song from its fossilized layer, reclaiming it as the wistful cowboy stargaze it’s always been.
Their originals give Shapiro’s often-whispery, smoky alto and Brothers’ earnest bluegrass tenor room to entwine — and fool around. “Almost Ready” is the gently hurried tale of a couple getting ready to go, accompanied by a mischievous but urgent guitar line. The couple trades signs of absolutely normal household contentment — “putting on the records/dog’s in the kitchen/wanting some attention” — and the worst rift in the preparations is a quick, almost hidden, “Quit your dawdlin’.” That flaw in the carpet cements the charming, Hey-we’re-doing-OK feel of the song.
Even when they touch on discontentment, these two voices make some of the most gorgeous harmonies this side of the Milk Carton Kids. In “The Other Night,” a modern but regretful ballad of a relationship accidentally revealed, Shapiro’s voice soars, and Brothers quietly chimes in, echoing Shapiro's “Let it be known.” The combination is haunting.
Even though they’re far from new to Kansas City’s burgeoning “roots duo” tradition (Victor and Penny, Betse and Clarke, etc.), this configuration'll definitely take them off the porch.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.