John Branigan and Sean Hoots of Hoots & Hellmouth (All Photos by Daniel Ahrendt)
Sometimes, you find an act boring. Almost everything you hear and see is disappointing, especially when there is some trait the act has that makes you want to like them. Sometimes this happens twice in the same concert. Hell, sometimes that theme runs all the way through. On Wednesday night, it would have if it weren’t for Philadelphia’s Hoots & Hellmouth, an incredibly soulful bluegrass/folk four piece with the collective arranging chops of a strong Tin Pan Alley songwriter. The other two acts that regretfully didn’t fulfill this reviewer’s expectations were locals Kasey Anderson & The Honkies and Missouri’s Ha Ha Tonka. Then again, most groups would be hard pressed to sound interesting on the same stage as Philly’s four man soul train.
The group started in 2005 as the joint venture of Sean Hoots and Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray, the two primary vocalists, songwriters, and guitarists of the band. After performing as a duo for a little bit, they added Rob Berliner on mandolin and John Branigan on bass. They became known for the added percussive power that came from their stomp boxes, wide yet short elevated pieces of plywood that Hoots, Gray, and Berliner stand and stomp on as they perform. It appears that on this tour they’ve added a full on drummer, who fortunately adds more than he subtracts from the effectiveness of the American roots aesthetic. However, judging from his absence in recent press photos and the actual stage, it doesn’t appear that Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray is presently part of the group, an unfortunate loss for those of us who were experiencing Hoots & Hellmouth for the first time.
Regardless of being half their namesake down, Hoots & Hellmouth were a fantastic blend of American roots spirit, soulful dexterity from Sean Hoots’ vocal chords, and modern indie rock arranging. All of this came together into an energetic and exciting example of how American pop music could sound; a raucous good time celebrating virtuosity, musical taste, and the formative elements of this country’s folk traditions past and present.
The rhythm section of the band is as solid as a rock and Berliner’s use of his mandolin engages in truly appropriate treble glides, accenting the space in the rest of the instrumentation. Sean Hoots develops melodies worthy of any R&B diva, but he’s more of a man in a trance than a glory hound. He broke two strings, one on each guitar he brought out (a G and a low E). Ha Ha Tonka’s lead singer Brian Roberts lent his guitar while the rest of the band, being awesome tour mates, restrung both of Hoots’ guitars in time for the last few tunes. It says something about your live intensity when you need at least two guitars with no difference in tuning for each show, especially if your average set is only 45 minutes long.
Both Ha Ha Tonka and Kasey Anderson lacked the elements necessary to be truly engaging. The former had enthusiastic stage presence and anyone could tell they were happy to be there. However, the music they played as they bounded about like best friends on summer vacation was flat, southern tinged but not tinged enough, indie rock. Kasey Anderson & The Honkies had almost the opposite problem. They’re a musically tight, southern rock band with the sonic variation between songs that Drive By Truckers excel at. The Honkies looked like they were having fun or at least engaged in a rewarding work out session. Kasey Anderson looked about as excited as a Great Depression era worker waiting for the next employer to never come by. His individual performance suffered and being the frontman, so did the whole band’s. Both Ha Ha Tonka and Kasey Anderson have potential, but I half expect to see Hoots & Hellmouth on Austin City Limits within the next two years.
Hoots & Hellmouth
Ha Ha Tonka
Kasey Anderson & the Honkies