Audio by Eric Wilkens
As people are inundated with political posts and “fake” news via social media, more and more are turning off the smart phone in search of more organic entertainment. Hometown heroes Head for the Hills were hosting what has become a yearly winter pilgrimage to the Aggie for good times and good vibes. This bill was stacked with Jeff Austin Band and singer-songwriter Wolf von Elfmand performing as well. We missed Wolf’s set, but arrived as Jeff and company were taking the stage. Fans filtered in on an unseasonably mild January evening.
In the intervening years since Jeff Austin left his alma mater Yonder Mountain String Bands, fans have yearned to hear his breakneck mandolin and penetrating vocals. While he gigs with his own Jeff Austin Band the fact is they just don’t tour as prolifically as his previous group. Of his original lineup, only he remains. For this outing he assembled a solid group consisting of Kyle Tuttle on Banjo, Jay Starling on slide guitar, Max Johnson on bass, and Mike Robinson on guitar performing with the band for the first time. Jeff was playing bandleader a bit more than the previous shows I’ve seen with the likes of Ross Martin and Danny Barnes.
Set 1: Sideshow Blues, 15 Steps, Red Haired Boy, Death Trip, My Sisters and Brothers, Raleigh and Spencer, Simple Truth, Carry Water, Dawn’s Early Light, Ten
Much to the delight of the audience the setlist consisted of many classic songs previously performed with YMSB. They opened with a riveting “Sideshow Blues.” “Red Haired Bow” was one of the few JAB solo tunes. This new lineup felt younger and less seasoned, but no less talented. Jeff gave a shout out to slide player Jay Starling for coming out to play with the band prior to a sweet “My Sisters and Brothers.” By now the room was beginning to fill in and fans up front danced enthusiastically. “Raleigh and Spencer” built nicely before a quick but perfect “Simple Truth.” I think for many including myself it was just nice to hear several of these songs live again. They went into a tune about perseverance entitled “Carry Water” followed by a beautiful “Dawn’s Early Light.” They closed with a huge rendition of “Ten.” Jeff Austin is a changed man living in Chicago with a completely different life since he left YMSB. It’s only a matter of time before all that life bubbles up into a completely new slew of material from the veteran musician. I for one can’t wait.
Head For The Hills is like that jalopy with a hemi under the hood; they’re likely to surprise you. Their soaring vocals, incredible picking, and stellar instrumentals are the hallmark of every show. This return home to the Aggie was no different. They opened with a slick jam on “Solar Bowling Shoes.”
Set 1: Solar Bowling Shoes, Blue Orchid, Suit and Tie, Floodwaters, Afraid of the Dark, Going Down, Give Me A Reason, Joy Kills Sorrow, Carry You Away, Darlin Corey> Big Mon> Fire On The Mountain, Bitter Black Coffee, Never Does, Sit and Whittle, Mama Tried, Wild Horse, Just Dropped In, Scrap Metal, Swing Instrumental, Columbus Stockade, Lover’s Scorn, High On A Mountain Top, Grisman Instrumental, Let It Ride, High Road, Picket Fences, Kodachrome
Enc: One Foot In The Grave, Tipsy Gypsy
Sloppy Joe Lessard assaulted us musically with “Blue Orchid.” The band took it down for the solemn “Suit and Tie” prior to the Parks penned instrumental “Floodwaters.” Joe Parks has settled in nicely on mandolin since the departure of founding member Mike Chappell in 2015. Head For The Hills sets tend to be massive and include a nice sampling of their catalog. They treated us to thirty songs in about two hours. That sounds more like a Ween show than a bluegrass concert. Additional early highlights included the brooding “Afraid of the Dark” and the fan favorite “Going Down.” Lessard’s fiddle was front and center on “Carry You Away,” but Adam Kinghorn stole the show with his amped up “Fire On The Mountain.”
Head For The Hills is on the cusp of releasing a new album, from which we were treated several tracks including the dark and sticky “Bitter Black Coffee.” Some stellar covers made their way into the mix including the Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and Norman Blake’s Brandon Collins. We were also treated to a smoldering version of Kenny Rogers’ “Just Dropped In.” Late set highlights also included a spot on “Lover’s Scorn” and an incredibly tight “High On A Mountain Top.” Through it all Matt Loewen drove the bus on bass beautifully. They closed this gargantuan set with a fiddle festooned version of Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome.” “H4Th returned with a fan requested “One Foot in The Grave” followed by a fitting “Tipsy Gypsy” to end the night. Head For The Hills is still a bit of a secret when it comes to the national scene. They are Fort Collins’ finest export and they play sublimely. Slowly but surely they are getting out to bigger and bigger festivals so I fear it’s only a matter of time before we must share them with the rest of the world. They are currently embarking on a tour that will take them from North Carolina to Alaska, and with stops at both the upcoming Winter Wondergrass Festivals you should have plenty of chances to see these boys throw down live.