Stuff the Avett Brothers and the Asylum Street Spankers in a blender. Throw in a few fistfuls of agrarian reform, a heaping helping of folky soul and a cup of religious fervor. Hit puree, then jump back as your creation busts out of its container and splashes acoustic rebelry all over you.
That's the recipe for a Hoots and Hellmouth cocktail, a volatile concoction that started foaming out onto Philly streets in 2005 and has since seeped cross-country. Sean Hoots and Andrew "Hellmouth" Gray, the main ingredients in this musical movement, are both hard-rock vets who abandoned electric bombast for a more rootsy, organic sound. Mandolinist and harmony singer Rob Berliner helps give it a countrified feel and a revolving cast of vocalists and rhythm keepers add to the down home mix.
"When we got involved in this music, none of us were using any previous bands or styles as guiding lights," Hoots said last week from his home in Philadelphia. "We were just seeing what we could do." The ensuing mix reflects an eclectic palette, blending soul, gospel, country and folk. "Not really giving a lot of forethought to where it falls, genre-wise, it's more about just coming up with a song that we like to write and sing and play," Hoots says of the band's creative process. "Then, over the course of performing them live, they evolve and take shape and a character unto themselves."
Hoots labels his main influence as "soulguts," a term he defines as "any music that takes that gut level soul beyond just a genre, more of a state of being when you're playing. No attempt at pretense, baring your soul and really being honest with the expression of what's coming out."
Philly has always had deep pocket soul. The Delfonics, O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Patti LaBelle and Hall & Oates made that city a soul hub in the '60s and '70s. But though he now calls Philadelphia home, Hoots' soul came from a more Southern source. Born in Salisbury, he grew up in Hartsville, S.C. He reveals his soul food roots with an online recipe he posted recently for collard greens that includes apples, jalapenos and beer as ingredients. "That's definitely a holdover from growing up in that environment," he says. But one disclaimer is in order. Although two bottles of beer are listed in the ingredients, it goes into the cook, not the food. "That's to kinda set the mood," he says, laughing.
Hoots and Hellmouth's musical mood is often compared to that of a revival, a gospel-tinged celebration that has the congregation on their feet and shouting their praises. "We have these stomp boards on stage that we stomp on that keeps us really active without a drummer, providing our own percussion," he says. "All limbs are moving at the same time to create the sound that brings us to a fever-pitched, revival-like intensity."
But Hoots is quick to point out that they are not gospel purveyors: "There is some gospel music in my background, but we're not espousing any particular ideology out of the exuberance of the expression of that style."
The roots they embrace are of the agrarian as well as the musical variety. "Root of the Industry" from their latest release, '09's The Holy Open Secret, takes on developers who want to pave over farmland "Where we hung the bodies, souls and minds/Of forgotten generations." The band offers a radical solution: "Gather up your axes/Forget about paying your taxes/And hack your way to the root of the industry."
It's more than just a protest song. The band backs up its words with what they call a harvest tour, visiting farms and celebrating with the communities the farms support, gathering neighbors in for a potluck supper and concert, with the band offering to perform, cook and clean up in exchange for a place to spend the night on tour. "That's really taking it back to that level of community dependence," Hoots explains. "Just being dependent upon your own community so that resources grown there are available to that community rather than shipping them out or destroying the land."
Through a blog called the Urban Homestead posted on the band's Web site but actually written by one of the band member's roommates, Nic Esposito, Hoots and Hellmouth support a variety of projects including one enabling inner city youngsters to grow vegetables for sale at a local farmers market. Another project, Philly Farmers, encourages local famers to organize and come up with ideas to improve the local food system. In addition, Hoots and Hellmouth plant to make the harvest tour an annual event. "The more we get involved with the farming community and our efforts to connect the dots and raise people's awareness, the more we find ourselves doing that sort of thing," Hoots says. "This harvest tour is gonna be a little bigger, a little more extensive."
Fans not of the agrarian persuasion might be ruralized if Hoots follows through on his idea of seducing them by combining more recipes from his beer-aided collards cookbook with a H&H songbook. He says that while he's not much of a recipe follower or collector, cooking "opens other creative portals. It would be a cool way to cross all of the streams there."
And while the band attempts to hit its agrarian goals, Hoots has more modest aims for himself. "Someone who was doing what they could with what they had in the time allotted to them," he thinks would be a fitting epitaph. "Not really going for any one particular thing, living life to the fullest, taking advantage of all the opportunities."
Hoots and Hellmouth play The Evening Muse on March 3 at 10 p.m. Tickets are $8.