Head for the Hills is roots blues but from an almost mystical mixture and inspissation. You're hearing the blues, certainly, and with a good deal of psych and rock, and you know it, but there's a very big difference that you just can't put your finger on…unless you're already familiar with the musics of West Africa, Mali in particular, and then you recognize the offbeat rhythmic elements and shifted dynamics. That's because Markus James has immersed himself in the area, its culture, and its arts, and that foundation influence is never far from his fingers or brain. What's especially surprising is the fact that no cut carries more than him and a drummer yet fills the soundfeld extremely well.
James plays all the expected guitars (with plenty of slide) but also the one-string diddley bow, beatbox, slide dulcimer (!), three-string cigarbox guitar, gourd banjo, and harp (and he really PLAYS that harmonica!), then sings with whiskey and smoked hogs' jowls in his refrains. Along with the Malian exotica, you're also going to encounter much of T.S. McPhee & the Groundhogs, Too Slim & the Taildraggers, Jim Suhler & Monkeybeat, and ensembles like that: ruff 'n ready blues with in-your-face grit, raucous verve, stank, and backbone but also elegance in tracks like Gone Like Tomorrow. Then there's For Blind Willie, a Peter Lang-ish cut, solo and spare (with frogs chirping in the background), slotted in among nearly an hour's worth of music: 16 cuts all of a piece when all's said and done.
My favorite track is the just-mentioned mello-esque Gone Like Tomorrow, even among all the raging, wailing, back-porching songs and all the rest. The entire disc reminds me of what was emerging in the 60s and 70s as Brit musicians began to tear the blues apart and put it back together again. There's not a mediocre ditty in the bunch, everything shines. Markus James has been highly praised for his music documentary film Timbuktoubab, and no less a set of national venues than NPR's All Things Considered, Billboard, and the House of Blues Radio Hour have been very enthusiastic over his work. I know two CDs at least preceded this one, maybe more, but that hardly matters, as his wrinkle on the genre, linking the American progeny back to its roots in West Africa, is one of those infectious infusions paradoxically wedding the old to the new and keeping the form fresh while familiar.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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