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Hoots and Hellmouth kick it up big time

Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass., July 9, 2009

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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One of the most amazing things about the Hoots and Hellmouth show at this venerable folk outfit that is apparently expanding its musical horizons was the solitary fellow in the middle of the small crowd. While the quartet was kicking it up big time on stage, the 20-something had his head down on the table, somehow fast asleep.

Now, for those not there, that was rather hard to believe to say the least given the tremendous energy, vocal interplay and aggressive musical stylings from the Philadelphia band touring on behalf of their just released second disc, "The Holy Open Secret."

The Avett Brothers provide a ready reference point for Hoots and Hellmouth, although H and H are less raucous and, in fact, may have better vocals courtesy of Sean Hoots, the wild-haired red head with old styled metal rimmed glasses, who was a real good singer. Andrew Gray, who like Hoots played acoustic guitar, also took turns on lead vocals. He, too, did a good job, although he was not quite as emotive as his compadre.

Musically, a key component was mandolinist Rob Berliner. He powered the songs time and again, spicing up the material while his mates were strumming their acoustics hard. Bassist John Brannigan, not an official member of the group, helped set the rhythm. Vocally, Berliner took no leads, but added a lot of backing vocals with the group often engaging in lively, three-part harmonies.

The band switched gears enough to maintain an interest with the louder, pushing the envelope style giving way to softer sounds later on. Among the highlights were the catchy You and All of Us and What Good are Plowshares if We Use Them Like Swords, a great title if there ever was one. That, like others, was also well-written in a message for peace.

About the only area where Hoots and Hellmouth could improve upon was the between song patter. There was not a lot of that, although the music came close to negating that need.

The appearance only drew about 30 people, but that never seemed to matter to H and H. They let loose time and again, drawing a strong response from the crowd. In a club not known for dancing fans, a few did. And at the end of the show, the band left the stage (they bring their own Hoots said because they do so much stomping that they don't want to break the club's stage) to walk into the center of the floor and kicked it up some more, making for a stirring ending to a great night of music.

The bottom line was Hoots and Hellmouth were not the kind of band to put you to sleep. That's for sure. Truth be told, the fellow eventually woke up after sleeping through a few songs and immediately started clapping. Who knows? Maybe he got what these guys were doing via osmosis. For the rest who were wide awake, the strength, vitality and joy of the music came through time and time again.