Here’s a post from our semi-regular music commentator Shannon Madden, a review a recent show. From Wednesday through Friday I’ll be posting daily from AWP in Chicago. Do check here for regular updates–Kyle
Friday January 23, at Washington, D.C.’s the Black Cat, Philadelphia’s Hoots and Hellmouth opened for Junior League Band, a local D.C. favorite. Rooted in a very similar tradition that hearkens back to the coal-mining days of Appalachia, the bands are cut from the same cloth, but fashioned into two unique garments, each representing a different spin on the Bluegrass style.
Watching Hoots and Hellmouth prepare to begin their set was like watching a collection of weary travelers awaiting an indefinitely-delayed plane at an airport in Kentucky. Wearing ragamuffin flannel shirts and hats and well-worn t-shirts, they busied themselves tuning or just plain sitting, looking up periodically for the cue from the Black Cat staff to take their places.
When they got the high sign, the band gathered in a semi-circle, scattered across large plywood rectangles raised a few inches above the ground. Sean Hoots on lead guitar and vocals gave a nod, and the band went from zero-to-sixty, dispelling all lethargy from the room. Hoots, Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray on guitar, and Rob Berliner on mandolin played almost as one. Hoots reached within the depths of his vocal capacity and unfurled fiery spiritual-inspired lyrics that would have been right at home kicking off a barn-raising.
At first, the audience seemed stunned into immobility, not knowing how to take this unexpected electricity. However, like microwave popcorn, one-by-one, by-standers came alive, and soon the entire audience was moving together at a steady clip.
As the band finished their first number,” What Good is Having Plowshares if You Can’t Spend ’em,” Hoots’ pick went flying, landing somewhere back stage.
The only percussion came from the thunderous stomping of the band, eliminating the mystery of the wooden risers. Bob Beach provided a wind aspect on harmonica and flute, and his improvisation was featured prominently in several songs.
Later, the tone went from revivalist fervency to Hooverville hopeful, as Hellmouth sang of his dream house in a shack filled with dirty dishes and down-but-not-out dreams.
Many of the songs on the band’s self-titled 2007 MAD Dragon Records release involve the dichotomous themes of passive discontent with the state of things and the power of hope and family to redeem. “Home for Supper,” touches both the sad state of hunger and the satiating redemption of optimism.
To ensure that the tone of the room returned to a brighter note in preparation for Headliner Junior League, Hoots took it back up, and in a fit of passion, culminating with a melodic screech that rivaled James Brown’s famous grunts.
By the end of the Hoots and Hellmouth set, anybody who could square dance was doing so. The band left plenty of energy in the room to keep the audience wanting more as the headliner prepared for their set.
Junior League’s stage preparation was more kinetic, as the co-ed band added a few more eclectic layers of variation onto the bluegrass theme. Lead singer/songwriter, Lissy Rosemont, on the banjo, startled the audience turning the boil down to an energetic simmer with a slower pace and a mildly haunting legato vocal.
Rosemont has the presence of Feist with dark hair and fair skin, and a voice which brings to mind Blondie’s Debbie Harry and occasionally Heart’s Ann Wilson with the spirit of country songstress Allison Krauss, one of her biggest influences. This combination provided an unexpected twist in a band whose instrumentals could join the ranks of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band or Old Crow Medicine Show.
Georgia-raised Rosemont grew up in a household filled with music. Her mother played piano and her father is Hal Beaver of Hal Beaver and Blackgrass, who introduced her to the music of country greats such as Hank Williams, upon whose song “I Can’t Help it if I’m Still in Love with You,” she put her own feminine twist in the evening’s set.
She herself has been playing music since she was a child, though she didn’t start formally playing her current instrument of choice, the banjo, until 2006. In addition to taking cues from her parents, she has collaborated with her brother on tunes as well.
Junior League also boasts two violins. Zeb Bowles, the band’s original fiddler has been a definitive force in the band since its inception. Featured artist Sadie Dingfelder has the tell-tale legato bow strokes of the classically trained violinist that she is, but masterfully morphed into a fiddle player throughout most of the show. She showcased her skills in medley of classic fiddle tunes, including the Charlie Daniels Band’s, “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which the audience acknowledged with cheerful recognition. Fun fact: The fiddlers share a birthday, same day, same year. “How many bands do you know that have two violinists, both born on the same day?”Eli Cohn, on lead guitar, quipped. “One. The answer is one.”
Martin Thomas, who was a sport about taking flack from the wise-cracking Cohn, played harmonica and even took lead vocals on the only song not led by Rosemont.
Underneath all of this country, was Will Waikart on the skins, who occasionally added a border-line top-40 dance beat which gave some songs a re-mixed effect. Junior League’s second full-length album, Mitchell Williams Fo’ Govena, released September 2008, has been praised for its transition across a range of musical planes, from blues to alt-pop, appealing to a wide spectrum of listeners.
Junior League’s tempo throughout their set was fluid, starting slow and long, speeding up, and dipping back down. The last song of the set was a lullaby. Lovers kissed and swayed and the over-served and exhausted struggled not to succumb to the soporific melody. Leaving the audience in a state of sleepy reverie, the band headed off the stage.
Moments later, Junior League took the stage once more for the encore, this time jump-starting everyone for the drive home, Hoots joined the ensemble, clanging a ceramic mug with a spoon in time to the music and adding his vocals to the chorus.
The bands have each cultivated a strong following through purely grassroots means. They are staying true to the commitment to play music for the love of it and continue to stay strongly connected to their fans.