The New (Local) Radicals

Farm Aid aside, music is a largely untapped resource in the fight for local, sustainable food, but Philadelphia-based roots band Hoots and Hellmouth is bringing three-part harmonies and foot-stompin' soul to the battlefield. Their 2009 Harvest Tour was an experiment that brought together farmers and music lovers in rural communities for potluck dinners and inspiring live shows. Rob Berliner talks about attending PASA’s (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) Farming for the Future conference earlier this year, and reinforcing a dedication to what they call "radical localism."

GF: You guys went to PASA’s big Farming for the Future conference in February - what was that like? Did you feel like you carved out a place amongst the farmers, advocates, environmentalists and sustainable agriculture enthusiasts?

RB: PASA has certainly helped because we were so visible there, but we've been making our way into this community and PASA was just another one of those steps. It’s a community that no bands have really penetrated too much because, really, what practical purpose does your average bunch of musicians serve the average hardworking farmer?

That said, people have caught wind of what we did last year (bringing the show to the farms) and just our general support and promotion of the concept of community supported ag, non-certified organic farming and sustainability and they are understanding that we truly are trying to get to know them and not just pay lip service to "save the environment," but actually exist among them... talk to them in their own language, so to speak.

They really do appreciate it because they enjoy the company, they enjoy the music and they know that having people out there spreading the word is good for business.

GF: Over the years, Hoots & Hellmouth has been slowly evolving into something much more than a band. Your focus on strengthening local communities and championing what you call "radical localism" is right in tune with the current food revolution. How do you see Hoots & Hellmouth - as a band or a project or a rallying point for environmentalists and local foodies?

RB: Well... we're a band first. We write songs about things other than farming, we record and we put in a fair amount of time moving about in the woefully non-sustainably minded music industry (seriously, venue owners and promoters - a whole tray of bottled water in the green room for four guys?). To make matters worse, we're still tied to petro to get us from point A to point B. Not something we're proud of and hopefully we can remedy soon.

But, beyond that, yeah, I do see us as (or at least becoming) a rallying point for foodies, environmentalists, farmers and otherwise locally-minded folks. I would be thrilled if a Hoots and Hellmouth show were like a flag or a beacon (or a BAT SIGNAL!) for these people to find one another. Then we can pollinate the rest of the world with these ideas, initiatives and whatever else. I would hope that we could help spread the word of the incredible work that these people are doing to the general population.

GF: Last year’s "Harvest Tour" revolved around the idea that local community revolves around local food. Did you think it was a successful tour and what are your plans for 2010’s Harvest Tour?

RB: It was totally successful because there was no real model to hold it against. In fact, we weren’t even sure if it would work. It’s pretty safe to assume that most farmers aren’t promoters in the conventional sense, and it’s pretty safe to assume that your average barn’s not a showcase venue doing live music seven nights a week. So no one knew exactly what to expect.

Of course, we play shows almost every night and there’s very little variation. But this is fresh and exciting for these people. Each show flowed differently and the only thing that was consistent from show to show was that each was preceded by a huge potluck dinner. As you might imagine from a community that’s tied together by its connection to the food that it eats, they were damn proud of what they brought (and rightly so - it was amazing food). We chose harvest time for a reason: ample bounty to go around!

So for 2010, we expect to bring this format that we've kinda created to some of the same farms and find a few more that fit the model. In the future, I hope that this tour can grow beyond the Hoots and Hellmouth and that by 2011 and beyond, we have such a huge list of farms that can accommodate this traveling road show that there're many shows going on simultaneously and, while HnH is on this farm, say, Langhorne Slim or Good Old War or whoever is down somewhere else playing to another farm.

GF: Do you think it’s possible for musicians to genuinely champion local food and communities when the nature of touring is to be essentially homeless? Shouldn’t we just stay put and play via the internet?

RB: Yeah, I totally do. I never thought of being on the road as being homeless. We all, of course, maintain permanent residences here in Philly... but while on tour, we rarely stay in hotels and are much more likely to bed down for the night on the floor of the home of a friend (be it an old friend or one we met the night of the show). So laying your head in a different place every night is more like having many homes than having none.

Being constantly on the move means that I come into contact with so many people in so many places every day. While no one likes to be preached to, I am more than happy to share what I know about the de-globalization of our economy and the joys and benefits of eating, thinking and buying local.

I realize that we burn a lot of fuel to make this all work. And I guess those rich Dave Matthews-y types can buy carbon offsets for their tour buses or whatever, but I feel like our own personal carbon offset is by actively and aggressively promoting the positive effects that localizing our food system can and will have on our health and our planet.

If you consider that the trucking and shipping industry burns a good portion of our fossil fuels (that’s to say nothing of methane generated by livestock in factory farms, but you'd know more about that than I) eating locally could dramatically reduce our general footprint. I'm comfortable burning a few gallons of gas to help people make that connection.

If a little van could keep a fleet of shipping rigs off the road, then we're doing ok.

In other words, I'd rather tour around playing to people who are supporting their local community and growers than be the local band in a world where people are getting apples from Chile, broccoli from California and (practically inedible) tomatoes from god only knows where.


We're still in a place where inspired individuals need to go out beyond their usual circles and speak loudly in support of local food and community. People need encouragement to shop at a farmer’s market instead of a grocery store, or to ask where their food is coming. If you get people to come together at a local farm for music then you're bringing them one step closer to their local food system and giving them a chance to interact with the people who grow and raise their food in a friendly setting. Music is much more joyful and inclusive than, say, a PowerPoint presentation and the joy that Hoots and Hellmouth give off when they play is infectious. You want to stomp and clap and smile along with them (even if you're really, really, REALLY not the stomp and clap and smile type) so why not channel that positive energy into something that lasts long after the band has driven out of town? Why not use music as another way to bring people back to real food? It’s an old idea made new again by musicians like these.

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