Living lightly, rocking heavily

There's a band playing the TLA tonight that you should check out if you're interested in saving the planet. True, Philadelphia's own mewithoutYou is not exactly focused on environmentalism, but their themes dovetail strongly with an ecological perspective, especially reducing consumption and living respectfully on the earth. Also, it's worth mentioning that they utterly rock.

The band, fronted by Aaron Weiss, began as more narrowly Christian-oriented (I first encountered them via Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready!) and more easily described musically as hardcore. But with their latest two albums, "Brother Sister" and "It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright," they've refined their sound into an infectious pop/folk/metal blend (see Jonathan Takiff's capsule description here). Meanwhile, they've expanded their lyrical approach to address wider and more universal questions of sprituality, community, love and attachment.

In mewithoutYou's retelling of the familiar fable, "The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie" (video here) the fox tricking the crow into singing in order to get him to drop the food is only half the story. The crow then recriminates himself for his vanity and for holding onto something he didn't actually need and the song ends by underscoring this idea: "When letting all attachments go / Is the only prayer we know / May it be so..." And "A Stick, A Carrot & String" advises those seeking divine wisdom to "Come now empty handed, you don't need anything."

Aaron Weiss has the street cred to talk about letting go and doing without. For years he actually lived by not buying any food but only taking what would be thrown away, a lifestyle commonly called "freegan," though he doesn't really embrace that term. Ironically, it was the conspicuous excess of the rock life that led him to it.

"It started," he explained after coming to the phone from giving the vegetable-oil-running tour bus a tuneup, "when we were touring with this major band and there was a big spread [of catered food] every night, and they would just throw away the leftovers and the next night there'd be more fresh food. I thought, hey, I can box this catering up and eat it for breakfast and lunch tomorrow, and then tomorrow night there will be more food. So I didn't need to buy food at all on that whole tour."

From there Weiss, who was singing about ridding oneself of unneeded possessions and self-destructive personas (one especially catchy song is "Goodbye, I"), kept practicing what he was preaching and lived off throwaway food - yes, in some cases finding it in grocery-store dumpsters.

Nowadays, what Weiss calls "the Freegan leanings of my lifestyle" have "really slowed down. I will occasionally peek into a dumpster," he admits, but he's no longer striving to hit 100%. "Within context, it was divisive," both logistically and interpersonally. "I ended up becoming judgmental for people supporting corporations by buying food." The strict "waste nothing" ethos had become something of an ego trip for Weiss, while undercutting his previous avoidance of eating meat (he has lately returned to vegetarianism).

And here's one of the key ways mewithoutYou is valuable for those of us who are trying to do the right thing by Mother Earth: How do we maintain motivation and purpose - as with an eating pattern or any altruistic lifestyle modification - without sliding into judgmentalism? For Weiss, he says he found that "The only escape from judgmentalism is to understand who I am and whom I'm judging."

After all, the mystic Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (who lived in the Weiss household for a time when Aaron was young) "taught that when we see others we're seeing ourselves, and when we judge others, we're judging ourselves," Weiss reflects. "So I'm starting to take myself down from the position of teacher ... and trying to take literally 'loving your neighbor as yourself' now instead of 'I gotta convert everybody to whatever my latest belief system is.'"

Recently Weiss has begun to question even whether his band creates the right patterns of interaction to offer "a chance for me to grow to investigate my own heart" and has made rumblings about moving beyond the mewithoutYou framework.

All the more reason to catch this one-of-a-kind band now - not just to revel in the driving beats and subversively catchy arrangements, but to drive home the notion that you can't save the planet without saving yourself.