HEAD FOR THE HILLS
Like Taj Mahal, Corey Harris, and Ry Cooder before him Markus James has been to the birthplace of the blues and returned a changed man. Ever since visiting Mali, and playing and recording with local musicians, James has made a point of incorporating the trance-like rhythms of West-Africa into his trademark Mississippi Hill Country Blues. Head For The Hills sees a continuation of this process, though this time James has chosen to remain stateside, both geographically and sonically, through the use of more traditionally western arrangements. That being said, the instrumentation here is sparse, eerie, and more dynamically varied than your run-of-the-mill modern Blues release. Aside from drums, percussion, and even beatbox on one track, all instruments are played by James himself. An impressive virtuosic arsenal that includes vocals, guitar, gourd banjo, dulcimer, diddley bow and blues harp. The lo-fi recording approach lends a deliciously menacing mysticism to the album’s 16 tracks and brings to mind the work of fellow Mississippians Luther and Cody Dickinson, whereas James’ raw and visceral vocal delivery is comparable to Real Gone-era Tom Waits. The album has an arresting, hypnotic quality that grabs you from the chicken-picked opening of Just Say Yes and doesn’t let up; forcing repeat listens verging on the obsessively compulsive. Head For The Hills is undoubtedly one of the finest releases of recent years, both within the genre and beyond, and James truly belongs to that rarest category of artists, the genuine articles, a modern Blues troubadour who wholeheartedly lives his craft and embodies this most ancient of art-forms. Perhaps put best by African legend Ali Farka Toure in the documentary of James’ Mali trip, Timbuktoubab; ‘he is someone who is seeking the source, reality, and understanding of the culture’. I, for one, am glad he is out there, still seeking.
IL BLUES MAGAZINE – MARCH 2015
Head For The Hills Firenze 014 (USA)-2014-
Just Say Yes / Goin’ Down South / Head For The Hills (acoustic) / Shake / Suit Of Golden Clothes / For Blind Willie / Gone Like Tomorrow / Fallin’ From The Sky / Nomo / Head For The Hills / On A Mississippi Porch / Sleepyhead / Candyland Refugee / Diddley Bow And Buckets / Woke Me / Green.
Abbiamo sempre subito il fascino dei ricercatori e degli etnomusico- logi. Crediamo sia normale, quando la passione raggiunge livelli per cui non si tratta più solo di musica, ma è parte della tua vita e della tua quotidianità e tutto, spesso, gravita attorno a ciò. Pensiamo che per Markus James tutto questo sia concepibile e assolutamente anche dentro di lui, fine studioso di musica oltre che musicista. Ci troviamo al cospetto di un artista che ha trovato nell’Africa profonda le proprie radici sonore, studiandole e facendole sue per, poi, andare nel Mississippi, come in un per- corso naturale, e scoprire che quei suoni scoperti e studiati in Mali sono ancora perfettamente riascoltabili se ci si inoltra nelle colline del Nord del Mississippi. Ed è tutto naturale, nulla è voluto. E’ la storia della musica e, prima ancora, dell’uomo. Questo che abbiamo tra le mani è un progetto particolarmente interessante e che merita un’approfondita atten- zione e analisi poiché fatto con cognizione di causa, intelligenza e, soprattutto, grande umiltà. James si è recato in località fa- mose per il loro passato come Como, Senatobia, Holly Springs e Luxahoma oltre che in Califor- nia e si è circondato in questo progetto di 5 percussionisti che sono stati la vera sezione ritmica di quell’impervio territorio statuni- tense: Kinney Kimbrough, Calvin Jackson, Aubrey “Bill” Turner e R.L. Boyce. Cognomi che lascia- no il segno e che hanno inciso parte della storia del blues del dopoguerra. A questi si aggiunge Marlon Green che abbiamo visto accompagnare John Lee Hooker nel suo ultimo periodo di vita. Questo “Head For The Hills” è un gran bel disco dove James ha saputo coniugare, come ci ha insegnato Ry Cooder, la musica delle origini con l’attualità e Markus, ancor più che il chitarri- sta californiano, ha pigiato il pie- de sull’acceleratore unendo il suono nero di oggi, contaminato dal rap e dal punk blues all’Africa delle origini della musica. Il risul- tato, ottenuto da registrazioni senza fronzoli, è qualcosa che ti entra dentro e ti prende accom- pagnandoti in un viaggio che vorresti mai terminasse. Le per- cussioni, vero mantra, costrui- scono la base perfetta per i vari strumenti a corda suonati dal nostro eroe (si va dalle comuni chitarre acustica ed elettrica, alla cigar box guitar, al gourd banjo, alla diddley bow a una sola cor- da, al dulcimer oltre all’armonica e alla beatbox). A questo bisogna aggiungere la voce e i vari rumori di fondo catturati dal microfono montato al momento dove era normale per il blues che si regi- strasse. Tutto reale, anche il gracidare delle rane. Tutto vero ed eterno come solo il blues può essere. Ascoltandolo capiamo perfettamente da dove arriva la musica di gruppi che hanno fatto la storia del rock, come Stones e Led Zeppelin. Vorremmo che questo disco entrasse di prepo- tenza nelle case di tutti, che non restasse relegato negli scaffali di noi appassionati ma che arrivas- se ai nostri giovani per far sentire loro la potenza e l’intima bellezza della comunicazione sonora. Geniale e imperdibile.
L I V I N G B L U E S M A G A Z I NE
DEC / JAN ISSUE #234
Markus James – Head for the Hills
Firenze Records – Firenze 014
The title of Markus James’ new disc, Head for the Hills, is not a throwaway. He really went to the hills – the Mississippi Hill Country, that is, to record the bulk of the disc. He recruited a number of excellent Mississippi drummers from the area, including Kenney Kimbrough and Calvin Jackson, to supply the rhythm tracks. He even recorded a version of R.L. Burnside’s Goin’ Down South. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough were, as most readers know, the two most recognized of the Hill Country musicians. While the drummers beat on everything from a hambone percussion to buckets, James handles the vocals and guitar duties. He is also featured on a number of exotic stringed instruments – the dulcimer, the three-string cigar box guitar, the diddley bow and more. Head for the Hills is an immediately likeable and engaging disc that will continue to fascinate and resonant with repeated listens.
There’s considerable musical diversity on Head for the Hills. Hard charging cuts such as Just Say Yes, Shake, and Wake Me, contrast nicely with gentler numbers such as the title song (acoustic version), On a Mississippi Porch, and Sleepy Head. The instrumentals Diddley Bow and Buckets reflect the different types of blues one will find on Head for the Hills. What is consistent, however, is James’ mastery of the guitar, particularly the slide. Throughout the disc, he uses the slide for multiple functions: to shape a riff or drive a solo, create a melody or add coloring and tone. The drumming is uniformly excellent, too. The five drummers who appear on Head for the Hills explore the multi-dimensional nature of the instrument – to drive the songs, for example, as well as provide accompaniment to other, more prominent, sounds and instruments.
Except for Goin’ Down South, James wrote everything on the disc and often his lyrics transcend standard male-female themes. Many of the songs possess a religious tone. On Shake, James sings about angels and Jericho. On the next song, Suit of Golden Clothes, he claims that “in a righteous world child / you’d be king / and the pharaoh gonna sweat / while you sing.” Other songs, Gone like Tomorrow, Fallin’ from the Sky and Candyland Refugee, all reference God or religion. Listeners will discover that James is not a straightforward lyricist – he is more of an elliptical writer, using fragmented words and images to paint ambiguous themes. For example, toward the end of Just Say Yes, it becomes more apparent that the song is about dissent: “just say yes to a world of no.” However, earlier in the song listeners are treated to lyrics that work at the level of indeterminate meaning: “You got a hammer / and you got a nail / you got a ticket / get you out of jail / you got the money / but it’s not for sale.” This approach works exceedingly well with the music that is atmospheric in nature – the ringing of the slide guitar, the slightly distorted vocal tracks, the pattering of the drums and the careful placement of sound effects (e.g., crickets) create delicious soundscapes.
As a bluesman James’ decision to “head to the hills” was a wise and logical one. In doing so, he pays tribute to the blues tradition of the Mississippi Hill country. The emphasis on the drum makes sense in relation to his larger body of work – he has played and recorded with African musicians, particularly in Mali. While the drums play an important role on Head for the Hills, there are moments – actually three songs – where James is featured without any accompaniment. For Blind Willie, one of the finest songs on the disc, finds James capturing the spirit and musicianship of blues/gospel great Blind Willie Johnson. While the drumming helps create a wonderful collection of songs, the unaccompanied instrumentals show that James is perfectly capable of creating brilliance on his own.
-Stephen A. King
BLUES IN BRITAIN (ADVANCE TEXT)
Markus James – Head For The Hills
If, like me, you are a devotee of North Mississippi Hill Country Blues, and sorely miss the music of RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough – then this set will have you ‘Goin Down South’ to ‘Head For The Hills’ before settling down ‘On A Mississippi Porch’ to listen to bluesmen playing those downhome, gutbucket blues on ‘Diddley Bow And Buckets’ – which just happen to be four of the superb sides on Markus James’ impressive set.
Accompanying himself on an assortment of guitars, gourd banjo, three string cigarbox guitar, slide dulcimer, one string Diddley bow, beatbox and harp – with backing on various tracks from some great Mississippi drummers in Kinney Kimbrough, Aubrey “Bill” Turner, R.L. Boyce, Marlon Green and Calvin Jackson – who also plays hambone percussion and buckets – James lays down some of the finest downhome blues it has been my pleasure to hear in years.
This isn’t just music it’s an experience, as the opening track – ‘Just Say Yes’ – confirms as it assaults you with it’s wildly hypnotic rhythms, chanted vocals and wild slide creating a cacophony of sound that brings to mind Junior Kimbrough “on heat”.
The manic rhythms of ‘Shake’ with it’s wild harp and “field holler” styled vocals had me thinking of a gutbucket version of the Pretty Things – the wild rejoicing of the country gospel vocals and head-banging rhythms of ‘Suit Of Golden clothes’ had me screaming “hallelujah” – ‘Fallin From The Sky’ conjured up visions of a NMHCB version of Cream – whilst the wistful ‘Candyland Refugee’ bought the music of Joe Callicott vividly to life.
16 tracks of great traditional blues – what more could you ask for? (www.markusjames.com)
Head for the Hills
Featured on All Things Considered
Rock with a West African Twist: NPR Music
“Profound world blues passage… extremely distinctive pieces, driven by a seductive rhythmic circularity that’s a keystone of Malian traditional tunes and Delta blues.”
“In his most varied and satisfying album to date, James delivers 15 songs that range from brooding minimalism to rollicking fusions of African and American sensibilities…an artist who has done as much as anyone to kick open the doors too long separating American and West African roots music.”
“The mix of sounds, instruments, and influences spanning the program is mind-boggling”
LIVING BLUES MAGAZINE
“Africa and Mississippi come together…”
BLUES REVUE MAGAZINE
“This is an extremely powerful album”
Ben Manilla, Executive Producer, House of Blues Radio Hour
Afropop Worldwide’s “Highly Recommended” 2006
“A sublime evocation of a landscape stretching from the muddy Delta to sun-baked Sahara sand”
“An unbroken circle of centuries of history”
ROCK & RAP CONFIDENTIAL
“Nightbird is one of the deepest listening experiences that will hit the U.S. market this year.”
“A vital mix of the Mississippi Delta and Mali, a cultural exchange of haunting beauty and mystery.”
BLUES REVUE MAGAZINE
“One of the most inspired and arresting world music/blues albums”
DIRTY LINEN MAGAZINE
“A hypnotic journey through time that goes all the way to the heart of the blues.”
“The word soulful certainly describes this excellent CD, which blues, rock, and Afro-pop enthusiasts should all be aware of.”
ALL MUSIC GUIDE
“Spare, moody, and beautiful, it builds a bridge between continents, and takes the blues home.”
ROOTS MAGAZINE (UK)