- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

What kind of a name is Hoots & Hellmouth? The band’s amiable co-founder, Sean Hoots, laughs at the question. It seems that Hellmouth is the nickname for Andrew Gray, who helped launch the band in 2005 and shares microphone duties with Mr. Hoots.

“Hellmouth is an attitude,” he says. “It’s a man standing at the confluence of bourbon and barbecue sauce, gripping the guitar in one hand and a girl in the other, and just singing at the moon.”

Mr. Hoots may be joking, but his sharp description serves a double purpose. It also helps illustrate the band’s eclectic sound. Drawing equally from country, acoustic rock ‘n’ roll and gospel, Hoots & Hellmouth serve up a dish that’s as tasty as it is unexpected.

Before delving into the world of acoustic music, Mr. Hoots toured the Philadelphia circuit as a member of Pilot Round the Sun. “We were a loud rock band,” he summarizes. “It was all about electric half-stack amplifiers and stuff. I had only been in electric bands at that point, so this particular project is quite a departure.”

Hoots & Hellmouth certainly don’t have much use for electric instruments onstage. The two singers wield acoustic guitars, while a third core member, Rob Berliner, plays the mandolin. They’ve also been without a drummer since 2007, when the band’s original percussionist decided to quit music altogether. “We didn’t want to try to replace him,” explains Mr. Hoots, “so we started experimenting with stomping. We’d put the tambourine on the floor and nail it with our feet. Now we’ve invented our own “stompboard” with a tambourine tied to the surface. That, essentially, has become our primary mode of percussion.”

Onstage, band members bash the stompboard while singing about devils and altar boys, city streets and country air, God-fearing children and lawless adults. Hoots & Hellmouth may not be a “loud rock band,” but they do play like one.

To get the definitive Hoots & Hellmouth experience, one must attend a live show, which often crackles with the energy of a tent revival. This year has been a particularly good year for such concerts. “We left for a seven-week tour around Valentine’s Day,” Mr. Hoots details, “and then we got back home and did a month of long weekends. During May and June, we were back on the road.”

The band will continue to travel throughout the summer before heading back to the studio, where Mr. Hoots hopes to funnel the energy of those shows into a sophomore album.

• Hoots & Hellmouth bring their stompboard to Jammin’ Java this evening at 7 p.m. Singer/songwriter Robinella will headline the show.

A festival is born

Before the inaugural Rothbury Music Festival opened its gates July 3, Michigan received an unusual amount of rainfall. The nearby town of Ann Arbor was drenched for eight consecutive days, while Rothbury itself weathered a severe downpour that turned much of the festival grounds into an impassable, muddy mess. Turning a new music event into a success is hard enough, especially in rural West Michigan. Turning a soggy field into a hospitable home for 40,000 people, however, makes the task even more difficult.

Some might call it beginner’s luck, but by the time concertgoers arrived that morning, Rothbury had been transformed into a green-minded play land for artists and music fans alike. Decorations made from recycled material flanked the stages. Complimentary hammocks were strewn throughout the wooded areas. Artists had the option of refilling their tour buses with locally sourced biodiesel. A regional farmers market provided fresh produce and baked goods to hungry campers, while food vendors served up cuisine on biodegradable plates. Music and environmental sustainability are often emphasized at such events, but few merge them as seamlessly as Rothbury.

John Mayer, Colbie Caillat, Snoop Dogg and the Dave Matthews Band all performed during the four-day festival, which also featured a fireworks display and panel discussions about climate issues. A lake allowed campers the chance to swim and cool off, while adjacent log cabins were available for those who didn’t care to sleep inside a tent. The setting was idyllic and surprisingly dry, until a Sunday-evening storm managed to soak those attendees who hadn’t yet left.

Rothbury’s promoters are already talking about next year’s event, which will purportedly be much larger. Can the festival increase its attendance while staying true to its environmental ideals? We won’t know until July 2009. However, if the festival continues to meet its challenges head-on, Michigan will see an increased number of summer visitors for years to come.

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