Hoots & Hellmouth continues old-fashioned hootenanny with existential new album

One of Americana's most endearing attributes is its lack of pretense. At its best, the style evokes a homey, unhurried heartfelt straightforwardness that stands out against an overcomplicated, ever-fluctuating world.


This sense of ageless honesty percolates through Hoots & Hellmouth, a Philadelphia combo that blends folk, gospel and blues for vibrant, foot-stomping shows. Like most best endeavors, the band simply happened with little premeditation or conscious effort.

For several years, Sean Hoots and Andrew "Hellmouth" Gray helmed rock acts in the insulated music scene of West Chester, Pa., around West Chester University. When their bands broke up, the pair made use of its new freedom by mothballing the electric, and playing acoustic sets at a popular local open-mic event. Gray and Hoots found themselves playing together at the coffeehouse and on the porch, accompanied by a few six packs.

Things grew from there. The open-mic host, Max Spiegel, has an encyclopedic knowledge of blues, skiffle and country-folk, which Hoots said encouraged the act to play old-timey tunes.

But while they were excited by the music, Hoots and Gray had little impetus to turn it into a band. Having gone through all the hoops as young musicians trying to break into the industry, both had watched as the love was squeezed out of their efforts, so they took a different approach.

Indeed, when the act embarked on its first tour, it went through the old stomping grounds of Hoot's previous band, Pilot Around the Sun. Hoot's fellow Pilot guitarist, Rob Berliner, joined the tour, using the shows as an excuse to learn mandolin.

"When people talk about (Hoots & Hellmouth), they always talk about how energetic the live shows are and how passionate and soulful it all is," Hoots said. "That came out of that first little tour. We discovered it in the middle of a set out of a little bit of frustration about the way the evening was going, and all of a sudden, we were like, 'This is it. Holy crap!' And from there, it became obvious we wanted to take it a little further."

From its unique stomp-box percussion to the rollicking energy the two singers convey, the band bristles with vibrancy. Some tracks, like the gospel-flavored "This Hand," rumble and roar like a revival meeting, while others like "Home for Supper" bound like a spirited, whiskey-fueled hootenanny. Reminiscent of The Avett Brothers, the quartet " thanks to the addition of stand-up bassist John Branigan " possesses a zest that seizes audiences by
the throat.

The group released its self-titled debut in 2007 after calling in Philly über-producer Brian McTear (mewithoutYou, Mazarin, Apollo Sunshine) to salvage some abortive early sessions. Hoots & Hellmouth recorded its second album last year before shelving the effort when it turned into too much of a studio effort.

"Given that we had become this powerhouse of a live band, we wanted to get that on record before we started chasing rabbits down their holes and getting all artsy and crazy," Hoots said.

Instead, the act took to the road to polish and hone the songs. When the musicians returned to the studio, they brought in Bill Moriarty (Dr. Dog, Josh Ritter) to capture a more live-oriented sound for June's "The Holy Open Secret," which features pretty folk tunes like Gray's "Three Penny Charm" and the album-closing "Roll, Brandywine, Roll," but most of the 10 tracks are old-fashioned barnstormers. The album is threaded with an idea of the ineffable " those things that can't be reduced or rationalized, but sit at the core of experience. It calls attention to the immutable experience of life, which science can't decode, existing like a "holy open secret," a phrase Hoots stole from author Johan Wolfgang Goethe.

"As much as you want to break it apart, analyze it and feed the data through a computer, you're never going to understand the mystery that is being," Hoots said, explaining the title's thrust. "That overconfidence of human reason, that certainty we sometimes have that it's perhaps a little over zealous ended up being sort of a thread with the songs on the album. Our records so far have been patchwork as far as the sound. I wanted this one to have a common thread running through it."

Hoots & Hellmouth with William Elliott Whitmore and Ali Harter perform at 8 p.m. Thursday at The Conservatory, 8911 N. Western. "Chris Parker

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