Head for the Hills can mean different things for this group.
It certainly applies as a destination this week, when it travels to Lake Tahoe for a Saturday night show in the Crystal Bay Casino. It also could mean it is going home to the Rocky Mountains. Musically, Head for the Hills visits myriad locations, too.
“We take our bluegrass instruments to a lot of places, White Stripes and Peter Gabriel, so we get to go all over the place with bluegrass,” said violin player Joe Lessard. “If we just felt we were playing traditional bluegrass, we’d probably feel a little bit burned out but the fact that we can take it to a lot of different directions is important to us.”
The quartet – Lessard, guitarist Adam Kinghorn upright bassist Matt Loewen and mandolinist Mike Chappell – has been intact for a decade. The players met in Fort Collins while attending Colorado State, brazenly following in the footsteps of Colorado bluegrass vanguards Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band.
“We were all in different kinds of bands growing up,” Lessard said. (Kinghorn and Chappell) were into heavier music, punk, hardcore. They found fascinating the rapidness of notes, and the technicality of bluegrass was attractive to all of us, and we liked the fact that it’s riffy and high energy.”
Like the aforementioned bluegrass forerunners, Head for the Hills is wont to put unique arrangements on songs and to not “bluegrassify” everything, said Lessard, who mentioned a favorite is White Stripes “Blue Orchid.”
Speaking of blue, Head for the Hills third studio album, and fourth overall, “Blue Ruin,” was released in May. It is described on the band’s website as “Meta-fictional sea shanties. Pop-infused newgrass murder ballads and urbane lyricism. Twang and punch.”
Chappell told Tahoe Onstage before its May 11 show at Crystal Bay, “The new album is a little bit of a departure from the old albums. Our first was straight ahead. The second more loose, more jammy. This one is more concise. It’s less verse-chorus-solo, which is your standard bluegrass kind of song. This has more flavors on it. But that quote has pretty accurately described what I am trying to get at.”
While the first two albums by Head for the Hills were produced in weeks, “Blue Ruin” was put together over eight months. Chappell said they added guests as they came up with 12 original songs. Contributors include Andy Hall of the Infamous Stringdusters, Kathleen Starr (cello), James Thomas (piano), Gabe Mervine (trumpet), Erin Youngberg (vocals) and Aaron Youngberg, who played pedal steel and, moreover, engineered the CD. It was mastered by David Glasser, who lists a Grammy Award on his credits. It was recorded at Swingfingers Studios in Fort Collins.
The album’s artwork was made by Timothy Doyle, who Loewen and Lessard met at the South-By-Southwest Festival. Doyle has worked for various bands as well as NASA, Lucas Films and the Campaign to Re-Elect Barack Obama. His “sea shanties” comic book style cover has clues to various songs on the record, which is also available on vinyl: Head for the Hills.
Lessard said the band already has new material and could return to the studio as early as this spring.
In the meantime, it wraps up its fall tour this week with a return engagement in the Crown Room.
Head for the Hills
Video: WATCHWhen: 10 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room
Red Room after-party: Roses Pawn ShopCover: free
ABOUT Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.