A new soundman every night. The members of Hoots and Hellmouth are drinking away the stress of the van ride from Philadelphia, preparing to take the stage at any moment as snow continues to pile up outside when Sean Hoots, one fourth of Hoots and Hellmouth and one third of its vocal harmony, tells me about the interesting sensation of baring one's sound (and soul) every night, not just once but twice. Once being to an audience obviously, but before that, before the audience even arrives, you have to do it for an audience of one, an inevitably surly soundman. The presence of a stompboard (a flat piece of wood with tambourines taped to it, providing the bands only percussive sounds) seems to make everyone slightly wary of what the man behind the soundboard here at Great Scott, will think of them, but this wariness didn't last long. Eschewing pop hooks or ordinary country music sounds, Hoots and Hellmouth have stompboarded their way into the hearts of fans one show at a time. Hoots, and later the headliner, Kentucky's Heartless Bastards will thank the restless crowd for making it there on such a cold night. Hoots and Hellmouth might not have known it then, but they were about to play before a crowd about to become ruthlessly loyal.
It did the heart of a Doylestown boy like me good to see an "I Heart XPN" button" on Sean Hoots' guitar strap, XPN being a radio station in the Philadelphia area. The bearded Hoots, guitarist Andrew Gray, bassist Tim Celfo, and wizard of the mandolin Robert Berliner, play that sort of music that makes a cold bar in a Boston winter feel like a hot West Texas barn-raising in August. An eastern PA drawl coupled with uncomplicated progressions and incredible speeds, their set replete with wildly flailing arms and legs, made this a show that was hard to wear a frown at. The fact that their new album doesn't come out until May didn't really register with anyone in the audience, and soon, you could see the few who started out as complete strangers to their music converted, clapping along with everyone else. This is a band that's unafraid of strange looks from a rock venue soundman, or anyone else for that matter, and it shows.
Thus, the audience was geared up and ready when Erika Wennerstrom and her newly designed Heartless Bastards took the stage, all smiles between small sips at their whiskey and dark ale, and a good time seemed guaranteed. A recent lineup change and a great third album, The Mountain, released not 24 hours prior, made this a very important show for Wennerstrom, and the crowd couldn't have been more sympathetic to her cause. The Mountain is a bit different from the heady garage sound of their first two albums, and is a bold move into a sound that's more Folkways than The Black Keys. Rowdy cries from the front row were ceaseless from start to finish, even when the band didn't give 100%. Wennerstrom kicked the show off with a loud, but reigned in delivery of "No Pointing Arrows" from the band's sophomore record, 2006's All This Time. Wennerstrom's voice, that sensual country-fried howl, did most of the work and the band struggled to keep up. Though unquestionably louder than hell, The Bastards' sound felt rather reserved for a good portion of their set. Readings of "Done Got Old" and "New Resolution" off their first album, Stairs and Elevators, were rather sober, but soon the new material began to rear its head. The titular "The Mountain," "Sway," and "Out At Sea" felt more like interchangeable bar blues when stacked against the timeless production they receive on the latest album. Whereas "The Mountain" feels like the contents of an old soul given new life, their simple electric guitar dressing live made the songs seem more generic than they are at heart.
After a flat delivery of one of their better and more unique rockers, "I Swallowed A Dragonfly", I began to wonder whether they were planning to bring the rock vibe they capture so flawlessly on their records at all. For a band with maybe the greatest name in contemporary rock music, things seemed mighty slow; they were behaving more like gentleman than Heartless Bastards. Many of Wennerstrom's compositions, their jazzy augmented minor chords and drums comparable only to the fists of a boxer against a punching bag, sound tremendous and gutwrenching when blasting through car speakers. But for whatever reason, they couldn't get off the ground when they were three feet in front of me. There was hardly a guitar solo worthy of the name. Finally, toward the end of a crowd favorite, "Swamp Song", the aggressiveness began to match the volume, and the mostly static backing band (drummer Dave Colvin, bassist and pedal steel player Jesse Ebaugh, and guitarist Mark Nathan of Knife in the Water) came to life.
Three songs shy of the encore isn't an ideal place for the rocking to start, but better late than never. "Nothing Seems the Same" and "Early In The Morning" came stomping out of the previous song's feedback, and the swagger I'd been expecting all night came out in earnest. Furious blues rock, the sort the Bastards had built their reputation on, began assaulting the ears of all present. The first song of the encore brought things back down though, and Wennerstrom and Ebaugh returned to the stage with acoustic guitars to do "So Quiet", almost as if to tease the patient crowd. They finally earned their name for the night with a roaring rendition of "Into The Open", a song that seems to erupt from Wennerstrom's soul everytime she sings the chorus. Straining her already strained voice, she stepped up to take the rocker's crown from Ann Wilson, Janis Joplin, and Wendy O. Williams, her gold Les Paul glinting like a sword under the red lights of Great Scott. By the time they reached "Gray," the whole crowd, bar dregs and all, were paying rapt attention. The malaise of the first 3/4 of the set was by now a faint memory and the Heartless Bastards left a satisfied crowd behind. If they had started with "Into The Open" and kept the energy level at the peak they reach during its refrain, the show might have been one of the most awesome rock shows I've ever seen.
Listen: Sway-The Heartless Bastards
(The Heartless Bastards are currently on tour and will have their network tv debut tonight on the Late Show with David Letterman. They are also performing at this year's SXSW.)