Imagine your feet pounding a determined rhythm alongside the railroad tracks on a cool, grey spring morning—that’s the beat. Imagine a grassy wind whipping across your face as mist-drops tap your skin willy-nilly—that’s the mandolin. Imagine the sun punching a beam of light through the icy clouds, barraging the sky till it turns blue despite itself—that’s the whistle riding atop the accordion. And imagine, suddenly, the train flying past you, slamming waves of motive force into your chest so you can’t tell your own heartbeat from the roar of the metal beast—that’s the drums, and the guitars, and the bass, and now you’re flying too.
You’re listening to the Hooters.
When a couple of Penn undergrads start playing music together, as did Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian, two science students in the early 1970s, and then proceed to keep playing music together for the following 40 years—as they’ve done as the songwriting core and dual vocalists of the Hooters, Philadelphia’s great rock band of the MTV era—the power of sheer statistics suggests that some odd synchronicities will arise over time. Here’s one: Five years ago, the Hooters played the Spectrum’s “Last Call” concert before that storied Philly arena closed forever. Now, this Saturday, the Hooters’ gig at Revel in Atlantic City marks the final weekend of live shows there as the bankrupt casino prepares to shut its doors for good.
“It’s not our fault,” Hyman deadpans. “I swear.”
While Revel’s brief, abortive two-and-a-half-year existence as A.C.’s tallest building offers no comparison to the 42 years worth of memories the Spectrum accumulated as the colossus of Philadelphia’s sports and entertainment worlds, there’s nonetheless a compelling reason to head down the Expressway to catch its swan song: The Hooters, wherever they’re playing their uniquely genre-defying blend of rock energy, Jamaican backbeats, Celtic jigs and bluesy roots—even when it’s the otherwise staid Capitol rotunda in Harrisburg, where they were honored last year with a command performance—turn that stage into a hootenanny to make the rest of the world’s distractions fade into happy oblivion.
Plus, here’s another bit of synchronicity: When the legendary folk-rock group the Band decided in the ’90s it was time to cover Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” their producer at the time just happened to be longtime Hooters collaborator (and fellow Penn college pal) Rick Chertoff. So he called Hyman and Bazilian in to help the Band’s Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson reinterpret the Boss’s classic ballad of the shore town’s surreal, seedy underbelly.
“’Atlantic City’ was amazing,” Bazilian recalls. “It was the first song we did,” he says, upon sitting down together to record the songs that would become the Band’s Jericho album, “and we all got along great.” That chemistry is in evidence on the track, which blends Bazilian’s mandolin, Hyman’s keyboards, Hudson’s accordion, Jim Weider’s acoustic guitar and Helm’s vocal to create a sound that’s as Hootery as it is Band-ish, turning Springsteen’s somber ode into a perversely celebratory romp.
“They were true gentlemen,” Hyman says, taking a moment to pay homage to the late Helm, who died from cancer two years ago. “I loved his reading of Springsteen’s tune, and how he kept the sober lyric but added a little bounce and twisted joy to the proceedings.”
Bazilian agrees: “Hearing Levon sing that—it gave ‘the Chicken Man’ a whole new meaning. You really pictured a guy with chickens in the backyard that he himself planned on slaughtering and eating.” And for all that he’s a huge Springsteen fan, Bazilian thinks their version of “Atlantic City” has earned a life of its own: “You can’t do a Springsteen song better than Springsteen—but I think they equaled it.”
In recent years, the Hooters’ big summer concert tours have been in Europe; they’ve held onto mass popularity in Germany and Sweden even as their careers back home have gradually refocused around their various individual projects as songwriters, musicians and producers. And there are a lot of those.
Together with Chertoff, Hyman produced last year’s EP The Dream Book by soulful Philly singer-songwriter Mutlu, blending reggae beats with R&B-inflected vocals and Turkish melodies. Hyman also enjoyed a flashback moment last year, reuniting with longtime collaborator Cyndi Lauper on her 30th-anniversary tour to perform a live rendering of the She’s So Unusual album (on which the Hooters served as her band—that’s Bazilian’s guitar lick and Hyman’s synths you hear giving rise to the sound of the ’80s on “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”).
Bazilian, for his part, has been collaborating with several young performers over the past year. He’s been writing, recording and releasing songs under the band name 88 with English singer James Bourne, of the hit rock group Busted (recently reborn as McBusted). And some of those songs have made their way over to the album Bazilian’s producing with West Virginia-born, New Jersey-based country singer Harmony Montclair.
Meanwhile, along with fellow Hooters John Lilley, Fran Smith Jr. and Tommy Williams, both Hyman and Bazilian have also stepped out of their co-frontman roles to join the ensemble of Hooters drummer David Uosikkinen’s epic Philly supergroup, In The Pocket, which gathers local luminaries like Ben Arnold, Jeffrey Gaines and the Soul Survivors to reinvent new versions of classic Philadelphia pop songs.
Staring down the barrel of the Hooters’ 35th anniversary year, though, Hyman finds joy in returning, time after time, to the ongoing back-and-forth of the collaboration he and Bazilian share. “There’s an amazing bond and respect and appreciation,” he says, “and there are some real differences, which make it what it is. It’s that smush, how the molecules bounce into each other. We kind of ebb and flow, and that keeps it fresh.”
Sat., Aug. 30. 9pm. Revel, 500 Boardwalk, Atlantic City, N.J. $45-$60. revelresorts.com
Floetry’s Philadelphia story