By Steve Graham
Head for the Hills has come a long way from bluegrass jams in a dorm room at Colorado State University.
The group has been throwing musical parties in northern Colorado for a decade and a half, and the 15thannual Pickin’ on the Poudre show on May 11 is no exception. But Lessard and his bandmates are bringing more guests and blending more genres than ever before — for both the show and the group’s new four-song EP.
“Specifically on this new album, we ended up bringing in a pretty big cast of collaborators,” singer and violinist Joe Lessard said in a phone interview from Brooklyn.
The band was on a spring tour that took them through the Midwest and Northeast, into a converted 200-year-old Connecticut church and a former New Jersey firehouse. Both had been converted into concert spaces, and the range of venues reflects the growing diversity of music in Head for the Hills sets.
The tunes are still danceable and largely acoustic. They still fit under the Americana umbrella, but they are tighter songs with more soul and pop sensibility than the group’s original bluegrass jams.
“I think we exist somewhere in between genres and musical categories, and people out here embrace that aspect of our band,” said guitarist Adam Kinghorn.“Hopefully, that comes through in the music we write and put forward.”
Bassist Matt Loewen said the band has changed and grown with the northern Colorado music scene.
“It’s been really cool to see how things have evolved over our 15 years of making music here,” said Loewen, who credits the Music District, Bohemian Foundation and other local organizations with building and diversifying local talent in Fort Collins.
“It’s a great place to make music,” he said.
Come together with the band
Lessard, who sings lead and plays the violin, shares the main songwriting duties with guitarist Adam Kinghorn, but he said Loewen and even guest musicians helped craft the new record.
Drummer Darren Garvey of Elephant Revival, vocalist Kim Dawson and dobroist Todd Livingston all pitched in, and others have been touring with Head for the Hills.
“It’s been fun seeing what we can do beyond our bluegrass background,” Lessard said.
Lessard said the band rarely listens to bluegrass, and the tour van is more likely filled with rap, indie rock, and experimental pop, partly due to the influences of musicians they are working with.
“We now have this access to a larger palette of textures, like more soul and hip hop or whatever it is,” he said. “The fact that we have those collaborators to filter that through is really important.”
Lessard said it was also really important to reflect on gender, race, sexuality and other issues of the day. While avoiding overbearing polemics, “Say Your Mind” is the most urgent record in the band’s long career. As the title suggests, the EP is more of a general call to action than a political screed.
“Say your mind, don’t wait for me to go,” Lessard sings. “There ain’t time and I should know.”
He said some of the songs have prompted meaningful discussions with fans after recent shows.
“It’s a conversation starter,” he said. “There are things that we think are right and humane and just in the world, but we’re not trying to shove an uber-partisan message down anyone’s throat.”
Still, in the current political climate, he said some issues cannot be ignored, even in a genre that is generally reluctant to tackle politics.
“It’s on the forefront of all of our minds and had to be talked about,” Lessard said. “We’ve seen an opportunity for our band to exist in this acoustic-ish Americana space and send messages with our songs.”
Ram party staple
Still, he said the band has not forgotten its roots at CSU throwdowns.
“We still like to throw a party by all means,” Lessard said. “There’s celebratory escapism in all this.”
He said the founding band members all met in the CSU residence halls and started jamming together.
“It was all kind of seemingly serendipitous,” Lessard said.
He was a classically trained violinist in the Suzuki method, and he brought his violin to campus with little intention of playing the instrument. Instead, he started messing around on Kinghorn’s mandolin. Kinghorn convinced him to pick up the violin again.
They started out with backyard college parties and found a manager from the south side of Chicago who booked their first tour around an Illinois Saint Patrick’s Day parade — another big party.
“It spiraled into a full-time thing,” Lessard said.
He said the core trio has remained so close and collaborative by checking their egos and sharing creative duties.
“We are highly democratic,” Lessard said. “Collectively, we feel more confident knowing that someone else will have an idea that takes it to the next level.”
And Head for the Hills still loves to throw a party, especially for a local audience.
“There is a certain vibe about the west in general, but in Colorado, the crowds really dance and move and react,” Lessard said. “Sometimes we go to places and we think people are appreciating it but people are stoic and not moving.”
The group’s next chance to get the crowd moving is the annual Pickin’ On the Poudre show, which has become the unofficial opener of the Mishawaka Amphitheatre season.
“It will be a big blowout,” Lessard said. “We’ll have the big band with the full horn section and keyboards and organ. … It’ll be a family event.”
It’s the band’s 15thyear of playing at the Mishawaka, and they will mark the occasion with a video retrospective inside the building and special guests on the stage.
“We’re celebrating the whole thing and bringing out friends that helped us along,” he said.
The bassist said the band is also ready to show off its new songs and new styles.
“It’s our favorite show of the year and we’re really excited to bring our new songs to that stage,” said Loewen. “It’s the Mishawaka, so you can’t lose.”