Rock ‘n’ roll is a thing of excess. From tempo to the temporal, the music is an incessant, emotional ‘Go Go Go!’ math equation to counter the trivial humdrum of the modern work-a-day existence. This is fine and serves a much needed purpose in our lives, but at times it can all become a bit too much. New doesn’t necessarily equate to better, and faster doesn’t necessarily mean more rocking. It’s a mistake to forget the heritage implicit in any music and the mid-tempo articulation of the past can serve as a refreshing change.
Enter Houndmouth. Combining the best of four-by-four cornfield blues with distortion-tinged classic rock licks, Houndmouth sounds closer to the Band than just about any other band. Houndmouth can be heavy and rocking without breakneck BPM’s. The band can simultaneously retaining soul while singing about cocaine and arson. The band’s songs aren’t political in nature, nor do they serve up righteous indignation or deep art-house explorations into the human psyche. What Houndsmouth offers are solid, sing-along tracks in the fine, desultory tradition of the rock weary country troubadour.
Halloween might sum America up better than any other holiday. For one night, all our evil inclinations and dark hedonistic ambitions are thrust into mainstream culture through celebrated pageantry. The trick or treat exchange is a simplified form of extortion, and the masks we create around our intentions are for one glorious night revealed in mock disguise. Excess is the order of business, whether it be the sweet-tooth indulgence in candy or the intoxication provided by alcohol, as well as our sexual appetites. Over the course of this single night, just about anything goes.
One could conceivably don a costume, call up some friends, and celebrate at their local watering hole on the off chance of encountering something interesting. Or, if you believe the holiday calls for something truly wicked, one could take that same costume, pack up the car and a pocketful of felonies for an overnight, 850 mile cross-country rip into the darkened heart of the Gothic South to see Houndmouth play Athens’ Georgia Theatre.
Escaping the north offered no respite from the chill settling over America. A cold wind ripped through the pretty, pre-war streets and with sunset there was a noticeable lack of foot traffic preceding the annual Mardi Gras-styled Wild Rumpus. Part street festival, part debauchery, the Wild Rumpus is Athens’ attempt to bottleneck the drunken exuberance of the college town’s youth into a relatively safe atmosphere atop the hill downtown, a mere stone’s throw from the University of Georgia.
Strung out from the countless miles, windswept and shivering a nip of bourbon from the next state over was enough to warm the spirit. As night fell, the young wormed out of the woodwork. One might look up from their pint to notice the decadent, empty hardwood bar had filled up with fantastically dressed, half naked youth. These Georgia women were beautiful, never moreso than when they speak, their honey vowels and homely idioms of the southern lexicon dripping sweetly. Yet, for all their lovely words, they were dressed as witches, devils, vampires. One considers the soul a very reasonable thing to offer up in exchange.
One could spend all night making new friends, but there was business ahead. A trip to the bathroom and a shot for the road gave one courage in the face of the 30th hour for the short, cold walk to the Georgia Theatre.
The venue itself is a dream. The theatre had burned some years prior so the interior was freshly renovated. Four levels united by winding staircases sat before a 40 foot stage flanked by floor to ceiling velvet curtains. No expense had been spared and to literally top all a rooftop bar was the perfect setting to watch the Rumpus parade through the streets below while awaiting stage set up.
When the lights dimmed. only a fraction of capacity had amassed for Houndmouth, and it’s no wonder. The entire discography for these Indiana natives rests entirely with their 2013 debut, From the Hills Below the City. The 12 tracks of this excellent first release cover all the hallmarks of a classic. Populated by drug runners, convicts, and other modern folk heroes, the album contrasts life at the bottom against the abundance of wealth and opportunity in America. It’s a damn fine listen, outshone only perhaps by a live performance.
Houndmouth is the perfect example of a new form of equality within group projects wherein vocal and songwriting duties are shared between the individual members of a band. Guitarist Matt Myers opened the night, but then bassist Zak Appleby quickly took over vocal duties. Between hot licks, Myers grandstanded, playing guitar over his shoulder and behind his back. One would immediately cry showboating if it weren’t for the exchanges and laughter between the costume-less band members. Two years is a long time to tour on a single album. As much was said from the stage as the beautiful Ms. Katie Toupin was brought from behind the keys to showcase a song from their upcoming album.
Ms. Toupin’s new material was a soft, introspective number finger picked on an acoustic guitar while the rest of the band sang backup. It stood in glaring contrast to her past lead efforts, for instance the good girl gone bad ballad “Casino” or lowsome “Houston Train”. The new material received perhaps the best applause from the meager audience before the group sunk back into well worn territory, giving vocal duties to drummer Shane Cody. The short set closed out much too quickly for a 12 hour drive, but headlining act the Drive-By Truckers were more than enough to make up the deficit.
I had another round to sustain the buzz and the Georgia Theatre had filled up. Moving between the four levels of the venue, one was assaulted by the rock ‘n’ roll crowd’s bizarre take on Halloween. The women in the theatre wore sexy equivalents of every costume imaginable, sure, but the real stand-out was a young woman dressed as the lost Creedence Clearwater Revival cassette from The Big Lebowski. The boys were dressed as their favorite ’80s hair metal bands, as well as a revolving door of takes on the camo clad, bearded redneck.
Brushing the dust from your nose, you might notice the behavior wasn’t so extreme once the lights dimmed. An unmistakeable aroma filled the audience as local celebrities the Drive-By Truckers launched into their brand of everyman southern country-rock. The Truckers do best what the leading boys of bro-country can only play at.
What was immediately striking was how much better the group sounded live than on record. Perhaps there was an added element of desperation playing to their hometown audience (or maybe it was the drugs), but most groups can’t a hold a flame to their recorded material. Live, the Drive-By Truckers’ double lead melodies and bass heavy rhythm section added a dynamic element to their performance that just wasn’t captured on this year’s English Oceans.
What’s more, the level of conviction contained within the expressions of co-frontman Patterson Hood’s face remained constant throughout the show. He didn’t sing lines about the IRS or the godforsaken state of the nation, the bear of a man purely growled about poverty and self-destruction. Mike Cooley provided something of relief from Hood’s intensity, playing tracks like “Made Up English Oceans”, that were no less involved, yet seemingly serene in comparison to Hood.
Dressed as the dead and playing to raise the devil, the Drive-By Truckers were more than I’d bargained for when buying the ticket that night. Houndmouth’s performance seemed a world away after the mesmerization of the Drive-By Truckers. No less intent was the capacity audience. The south has long had a knack for a bit of insanity, and when an institution like the Drive-By Truckers are brought together with the nihilist ambitions of a hometown Halloween crowd, the energy exchanged between the two parties was palpable.
The set went long, closing out after sating the rabid lust of the Athens audience. Released to the night, the costumed concertgoers raved cathartically into the dense, booze-drenched street traffic of the bar crowd. On this of all nights, I frantically summoned any demon powerful enough to blind the country boys to my out-of-state Yankee plates weaving north while searching the side of the highway for the ghost of Hank Williams in the moonlit spectral North Georgia fog.