The first time I saw Philadelphia’s hard-rocking, green-living, roots rockers Hoots & Hellmouth, they were touring without a drummer; just two stomp-boxes, four tambourines, and a mandolin that somehow manages to transcend stringed instruments and become percussion. (God, isn’t it wonderful, how the mandolin can do that? It’s one of those instruments that, when played well, gives such texture to music, and H&H’s Rob Berliner plays it very, very well.) It was a damp twilight set in a tent, and it was absolutely exhilarating, one of the best sets I saw that weekend.
I described their sound, on their spectacular 2009 album The Holy Open Secret, as roots pop, and two years ago, without a drummer, that was true; Sean Hoots is a pure pop songwriter, but the stomp boxes, the mandolin, the fierce way Sean attacks his guitar — at that first Bristol Rhythm & Roots set, he broke three strings in 45 minutes — give it that traditional edge, not bubblegum pop but something a little bigger. By the time I saw them again, the next year, at BRRR again, they were on a bigger stage, minus second songwriter Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray but plus a spectacular (and adorable) drummer whose name I cannot locate anywhere on the internet, they’d gotten bigger, more polished, and fiercer. But they hadn’t lost that rootsy edge, even on a bigger stage; they still had their stomp boxes and under the polish were those rough layers that make H&H so good, and so different.
Last night at the Pourhouse, where they played to a small and (sadly) mostly indifferent crowd, they’re still taking those steps forward. Behind a new EP, released in March, songs that used to be pure pop are taking on a darker edge — something about last night’s version of “You And All Of Us”, my favorite H&H song, shivered under my skin — and the band is sliding into a territory where their Americana is turning gothic, and heartbreaking. Sean Hoots is still one of the best songwriters out there, and his band harmonizes and plays together like a single unit. I couldn’t take my eyes off their drummer during a riotously driving “Abattoir Boy & Girl”, because I couldn’t fathom how he was keeping time like he did; but, like all the other drummers I love, he managed, metronomically and wildly all at once. That’s why Hoots & Hellmouth are great, that’s why they should be as famous as Philadelphia friends Dr. Dog: they should sound like every other band out there with a mandolin and an acoustic guitar, and they don’t, because there’s something sweet and dark in the songwriting, in the way they play together, in the four part harmonies, that stands them a head above other bands.
It was a delight, as always, to see them, and I am very grateful that I only had to drive to Raleigh, not Tennevirginia, to see them this time around.
Full set is here.