When Head for the Hills Fiddle-man Joe Lessard was asked in our recent interview what it is about Colorado that makes us Bluegrass Country, he replied “It must be something in the water, or a lack thereof.” The boys in the Fort Collins, Colorado born bluegrass band are at a pinnacle peak in their career. With a fresh studio album and new original material only a few years old, the boys are proud to finally share their first “official” live release, fittingly and simply entitled “Live”. Lessard admits that way back when they tried to put together a compilation without major distribution, however this is the true live release debut for Head for the Hills.
Bass player Matt Loewen, Fiddle-man Joe Lessard, mandolin shredder Michael Chappell and flat-picking guitar-man Adam Kinghorn compromise truly the most interesting bluegrass band to emerge from the 2000s. So many Railroad Earths, Yonder Mountain String Bands, and Hot Buttered Rums have boomed and blown up all over the live music scene, as the last 20ish years have been a true reckoning for the genre. People love the adventurous spirit of the playing, the soulful vocal harmonies, and the romp-and-stomp energy that gives them a chance to unwind and boogey. But out of all of the fresh names and faces none keep their act as interesting and varied as Head for the Hills. Many find a nitch and stick to safer territory. Head for the Hills were born out of the Colorado State University dorms in the early 2000s, four guys with extremely different backgrounds in music. And like many Coloradians, they caught the bluegrass bug, and havn’t looked back since.
Though Head for the Hills is certainly not traditional bluegrass, Lessard admits that none of them came from that background before they met, something about their brand of grass seems like its rooted in decades of sensibility and spirit. There’s something inviting and seductive about their music. Their live hootenannies have gained legendary status in Colorado and all over the country. Every time a see these guys they have something new to offer. Another risky take on something unexpected. Being picky isn’t always a bad thing. Perhaps that why the fellas took nearly a decade to pop out an “official” live release, but it was certainly worth the wait. Mixed by ex-String Cheese Incident soundman (amongst numerous other endeavors) John O’Leary, these tracks really represent and capture properly the adventurous spirit of a Head for the Hills concert.
All sixteen tracks reveal a truly polished unit, four guys that came together and taught themselves the ropes. Instead of releasing a single multi-tracked concert, the guys captured highlights from their 2011 performance year in Colorado. Most of the album is Head for the Hills mainstay tunes, many of which were not on their studio albums. It flows so effortlessly. The first track is a cool little intro-diddy followed by a cover of the Norman Blake standard “Randall Collins”. Though the boys may not harmonize in a strictly Grand Ole’ Opry form, that’s never what they wanted, or what we expected. The boys show off their pipes with “One Foot in the Grave”, in which the audience can be heard going absolutely nuts, adoring their unique four-part harmony.
The highlight of the album for me is their take on the instrumental “Big Mon” seguing fluidly into the traditional “Fire on the Mountain.” After hearing this breakdown, its very easy to understand why these boys have performed with the likes of Peter Rowan or Sam Bush, and why they’re (finally!!) playing the main stage at the 39th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Another standout track to me is “New Lee Highway Blues” where bassist Matt Loewen, the least vocally participatory member, delivers an honest performance that fits his range well. The song dons it title from the traditional fiddle-ragger “Lee Highway Blues.” At first the listener will not understand the reference until the instrumental breakdown six-minutes in reveals a fun fiddle-lead jam session. Its important to mention the “guest” member of Head for the Hills, pianist James Thomas, who appears on at least a few tracks. His presence never crowds the other musicians and his contributions are valuable.
Though covers pop-up throughout every Head for the Hills show, their original tunes are inventive and earned them their celebrated status as one of the hottest bands on the scene. “Nooks and Crannies” is Head for the Hills. Nuancing and disguising many traditional seeming riffs from jazz and bluegrass but its an original. This tune is all over the map and makes it worth the purchase alone! Another original “Salt Spring” is a melodically rich instrumental with some solid flatpicking from Adam Kinghorn. His guitar playing is simply astonishing, unintentionally rivaling any contemporary on the scene. The biggest surprise on the album is the closing tune, a cover of the Iron Maiden classic “Run to the Hills”. It just goes to show the boundless creative spirit that Head for the Hills encompasses. They’re a bluegrass band that plays heavy-medal, jazz, punk, hip-hop, and blues. High camp at its best, and a cool way to end the album.
Do yourself a favor! Pre-order this album off their website (out for release on May 29th!) Your supporting your favorite kind of music, and who doesn’t like a down-home group of good ole’ Colorado guys? Seriously, it was worth the wait for this one. The song selection was assembled with consideration that truly represents their live ambiance and does their sound justice. They’ve been giving their music away for years for free on archive.org, now its time to support live music by breaking out the head-stash of prime selections from their hottest year on the road. It will become a favorite in your CD collection no doubt, and can hold you over till the next time you catch them on the road.