11.13.15 Head for the Hills & Trout Steak Revival

Nectar Lounge
Seattle, WA

Words By Coleman Schwartz
Photos By Scott Shrader (J. Scott Shrader Photography)

This cold, rainy Friday evening at Nectar Lounge boasted a fantastic bill of Newgrass (Progressive Bluegrass) music. Local quintet, The Blackberry Bushes Stringband kicked things off, followed by two Colorado acts, Trout Steak Revival and Head for the Hills. These acts drew a nice-sized crowd in spite of the weather, and treated their eager patrons to a pleasant evening of picking.

Blackberry Bushes Stringband opened the night by delivering a lovely set of Bluegrass tunes with an Americana twist. The quintet had a very even attack, anchored by remarkably steady upright bass playing from Forrest Marowitz. Jes Raymond played guitar and acted as the band’s frontwoman. Her vocals were outstanding. She has a deep, booming voice that could fill most rooms unamplified. Many of her lyrics were playful (there was one tune about chicken), and she definitely seems to have a blast performing onstage. Her smile lit up the room and made the whole audience feel right at home. Jakob Breitbach (fiddle), Alex Genova (banjo), and Daniel Ullom (mandolin) all played well, both individually and as a unit. Their set was short but sweet, and I look forward to catching this local band again soon.

Next up was Trout Steak Revival. As they took the stage, I could not help but be impressed with mandolinist Steve Foltz’s large, Paul Hoffman-esque beard. Like the previous act, they were a quintet, but the instrumentation changed throughout their set. To start off, they featured Foltz on mandolin, Travis McNamara on banjo, Will Koster on acoustic guitar, Casey Houlihan on upright bass, and Bevin Foley on fiddle. McNamara stood out on the first song, treating the audience to his soulful vocals and ferocious picking on banjo. The second track saw Houlihan take over lead vocal duties. While not technically as adept of a singer as his bandmate McNamara, I thought Houlihan did a great job of making his voice work for him, with a deeper delivery that was closer to a spoken-word style and fit into the tune outstandingly. Foley started to really get going on fiddle towards the end of the song, as the other band members hung back to hold down the rhythm parts.

The following tune was a breakup-inspired track, “Go On.” Foley did a wonderful job carrying the melody on fiddle in between her lead vocal sections, which were bolstered by three-part harmonies from Foltz and McNamara. “Brighter Every Day” saw McNamara take back over lead vocals, with harmonies from Foley and Koster. This uplifting track saw Koster spend most of his time behind Houlihan, locking into a tight groove as Foltz and Foley carried the melody. They finished the song with a great five-part harmony section that properly showcased the full vocal ability of this talented ensemble.

After this, Koster swapped his acoustic guitar for a dobro, to my great pleasure. The next song saw Foley step back into a much more percussive, rhythmic role to allow Koster his first chance to flex his instrumental muscle during this set. With him still playing dobro, the band moved into a cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Houlihan’s vocal delivery was ideally suited to a Bob Dylan cover, and his version added lots of twang to the original as he also drove the song along with his bassline. Foley spent the song alternating between rhythm work and dual leads with Koster. The ending to this song included an awesome, chaotic peak that was accented by well-placed high notes from McNamara.

Another song began with an interesting pizzicato intro by Foley, making use of her full range of dynamics before finally pulling out her bow. The rest of the tune featured some of Koster’s best dobro work. I was most impressed with his right-hand, which was remarkably loose and almost appeared to be floppy. Foltz switched from mandolin to acoustic guitar, and the packed house was really getting moving at this point in the set, generating a lot of heat. So much, that Nectar Lounge management made the call to open the large garage door in front of the stage. As it was hoisted open, the crowd gave a thunderous applause, and even the band had to stop to acknowledge how nice the cool November breeze felt. The remainder of the set featured a return to their original instrumentation, a nod to their beautiful home state with “Colorado River,” and a great rendition of their song “Pie.” This tune had perhaps the most agreeable message of any I have heard, with a refrain that goes “pie, pie, pie, all I want is pie.”

One of my favorite things about this band was the raw power and emotion of their five-part harmonies. They don’t overdo them either, mainly relying on three and four-part harmonies for the bulk of the show and bringing everyone in only at climaxes. This technique was really helpful to keep them feeling special for the duration of the set.

After a short break, fellow Colorado pickers Head for the Hills took the stage for their headlining performance. This quartet included Adam Kinghorn on acoustic guitar, Joe Lessard on fiddle, Matt Loewen on electric upright bass, and Sam Parks on mandolin. In comparison to the last two bands, they were down a member and lacking a female vocalist, but I think they easily made up for it with their raw, instrumental talent. Lessard definitely had more extensive fiddle rhythm obligations than the previous two fiddlers due to their lack of a banjo, but this in no way detracted from his outstanding lead abilities, nor his beautiful, clean voice. The early portion of their set featured a great cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” with Kinghorn singing. The band’s interplay was both synchronized and formidable, and they wasted no time proving that they deserved the headlining slot. I particularly enjoyed watching how promptly the other band members were able to respond to the twists and turns of Lessard’s fiddle lines.

Throughout their set, Loewen did an awesome job of accenting notes to add punch to his two-beat bassline. Great musicians can play a relatively simple, repetitive part in their own distinct style, and he did a great job of this. A nostalgic cover of Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” gave him the chance to really let loose, and he did a tremendous job. His playing was fluid but steady, and his bandmates clearly appreciated him acting as the band’s heartbeat. As they all harmonized on the song’s final refrain, I was simply amazed at the amount of vocal talent that had graced the stage this evening.

The band romped through the original tune, “Solar Bowling Shoes,” with Lessard, Kinghorn and Parks starting off by taking turns soloing. As the song continued, their parts became far more cohesive. By the end, it was no longer immediately apparent which of them was carrying the melody, because they were doing so collaboratively. This was really cool to watch happen. After this, they ran through their original tune “Take Me Back,” before playing a cover of Bill Withers’ “Better Off Dead.” Kinghorn did his best to infuse the guitar part with some funk, a welcome addition to this classic tune. “Let It Ride” came next, followed by “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” by Mickey Newbury. This countercultural anthem was particularly well received and got the crowd excited.

“Way Down the River Road,” originally by John Hartford, kept the energy high with its winding fiddle intro and opening lines of “Where’d you get your whiskey, where’d you get your rum?” Parks, Lessard and Kinghorn each took a succinct solo prior to the song’s conclusion, each taking great care to preserve the band’s momentum without being indulgent. The gentleman sitting beside me on the balcony was a John Hartford fanatic, and this absolutely made his night.

The band next welcomed McNamara, Koster, Houlihan and Foley from Trout Steak Revival back to the stage. Foley brought her fiddle, and the other three brought just their exquisite voices. To the utter delight of my new friend, the band performed a second consecutive John Hartford cover, “Get No Better.” This uplifting song was a great reward for the audience members who had made it this late into the evening, and included some great dueling fiddle parts between Foley and Lessard.

After the members of Trout Steak Revival left the stage, Head for the Hills played one more song to close things out. This original number, “Goin’ Down,” actually turned out to be one of my favorites of the night. Lessard, Parks and Loewen bunched together in the middle of the stage and grooved tightly together, as Kinghorn stood by himself, off to the side and masterfully traced an outline around the song’s chord progression. The song’s lyrics were about goin’ down to that place you gotta be, in that Colorado backcountry. As a fellow enjoyer of mountain solitude, I found this idea to be extremely relatable, and it is great to see people taking so much pride in the area they come from.

Every member of Head for the Hills can flat-out play their instrument, and their songwriting is multi-faceted and high-quality. They have a lot of pop and funk-influenced tunes, and it was wonderful to not only see a band incorporate these contemporary influences into their Newgrass music, but to do so while still keeping their set exceptionally polished. These professionals are unquestionably one of the most exciting, up-and-coming acts in the Colorado Bluegrass scene. Make sure to check them out when you get a chance!

Scott's Photo Gallery

*Due to circumstances beyond our control, our photographer was unable to photograph Head For The Hills




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