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Bluegrass band, Head for the Hills, performs Saturday in Vail

Nicole Inglis
ninglis@vaildaily.com
Vail CO, Colorado

VAIL, Colorado ” For most college freshmen, dorm life means little sleep, cramped living quarters and creepy roommates. But for four freshmen at Colorado State University in the fall of 2003, the dorms wove together a fateful network of musicians and friends, which eventually grew into the progressive bluegrass act Head for the Hills.

“It was destiny the way it worked out,” said mandolin player Mike Chappell. “We could have been living next door to anybody.”

The group started out jamming together in thei rooms and kept the connection going even when some memberes transferred schools or moved. The jam sessions moved from the dorms to the stage, morphing into Head for the Hills: Adam Kinghorn (guitar, banjo, vocals), Joe Lessard (fiddle, beatbox, vocals), Matt Loewen (bass, clarinet, vocals) and Mike Chappell (mandolin, vocals). Sean MacAskill, who lived next door to Lessard in the dorms, always had an interest in the business side of things and has been the band’s publicist from day one. Loewen calls him the fifth member of the band.

“It was the path that was set,” MacAskill said of the band’s formation. “We ended up lucky, I guess.”

Loewen said that the band didn’t get together with the intention of playing serious gigs. “We wanted to hang out and play music and have a good time,” he said.

But since the fall of 2003, Head for the Hills has gone from “jamming and hanging” to extensive touring, a studio album and the opportunity to share the stage with bluegrass legends like Sam Bush, Emmitt Nershi and David Grisman. This past year they were invited to play in at a late-night jam session at Telluride Bluegrass Festival, as well as at the Wakarusa Festival in Kansas.

Head for the Hills starts their spring tour with a series of Colorado mountain town shows, including a show at the Sandbar in West Vail on Saturday.

“Doing the ski town thing is cool in Colorado because the towns are nice and we like to ski,” Loewen said. “But it also provides good exposure because you have a new set of people from all over the place.”

During school, the group’s young age (they’re only 23 now) and busy college schedules proved slightly restrictive when it came to the band. But with three of the band members out of school, MacAskill said music will soon be their number one priority. For now, the band hits the road often during the summer, and plays during the winter when Lessard is on break from CU-Denver where he’s pursuing a Masters degree in business.

“Once Joe finishes school, it’s wide open,” MacAskill said. “We hope to transition into it nicely as it becomes a full time thing. Even if they are working days, they focus on playing and touring as number one and take it as far as they can.”

The youthful dynamic of Head for the Hills, however, is also what brings a fresh and progressive take on the bluegrass genre. MacAskill said that the music is not just limited to traditional bluegrass, but incorporates blues, jazz and folk rock.

“They’ve really been able to sink their teeth into the progressive side of bluegrass music like (Sam) Bush and (Bela) Fleck, while still staying true to the roots,” MacAskill said.

Aside from their devotion to studying bluegrass heroes like Bill Monroe and Sam Bush, each band member has a drastically different musical background.

Lessard was classically trained to play the violin using the Suzuki method, which teaches musicians to play by ear. He also plays in several hip hop groups.

Kinghorn and Chappell were childhood friends, and both experimented with semi-successful punk rock bands in high school. As they started to attend more and more shows at Red Rocks Ampitheatre, they realized the Colorado music culture embraced acoustic music in all its forms, having given birth to jam-grass legends like String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band.

“We were all so new to playing the music,” Chappell said. “We all started as beginners at bluegrass but we’ve grown since then. We’ve learned a lot about it because we started from square one.”

Loewen said that the project is ever-evolving and building on itself.

“There’s been a musical progression of us as individuals and us as a group,” Loewen said. “We’re all pretty young and have learned a lot. We’ve always been growing and never really looked back.”

As for what the future holds, the band is looking forward to getting back on the road and putting a few more miles on their van. It may even be time for a van upgrade, said MacAskill, as the band prepares for their spring tour, studio sessions in May and the summer festival season.

Perhaps most of all, the band members are looking forward to spending more time together writing and playing different styles of music.

“At the core of it, we’re all great friends,” MacAskill said. “We’re growing together and taking on new experiences. I’m happy to be working with these guys and taking it one step at a time.”

What: Head for the Hills

Where: Sandbar Sports Grill, West Vail

When: Saturday, 9:30 p.m.

Cost: $6 in advance, $8 at the door

More information: Call 970-476-4314


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