Duhks – Old-time’s new wave
In 1991, when Leonard Podolak was 16, he wasn’t enamored with folk music. Podolak, the future leader of the Duhks, thought it was OK, but it was his parents’ music, not his. His father Mitch, founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, had tried several times to teach his son how to play the banjo, but Leonard couldn’t be bothered. He was more interested in playing synthesizer in Apathy, a high school basement band that specialized in Guns N’ Roses covers. In other words, he was a normal 16 year old.
But that summer he attended his father’s festival, as he always did, for it was the year’s biggest social event in the Canadian prairie town. Instead of playing soccer with his friends on the festival’s meadows, as he had in years past, he spent more time sitting before the stages, actually listening to the musicians. One of those musicians changed his life.
“When I saw Bela Fleck, I was completely blown away,” Podolak remembers. “I had never heard any music like that. For me, folk music was the same fifteen banjo tunes I had heard played the same way for years. This was like nothing I had ever heard. It was as exciting as Guns N’ Roses, but it didn’t require stacks of equipment I couldn’t afford. I went to my dad and said, ‘I’m ready; teach me now.'”
Thirteen years later, Bela Fleck co-produced the self-titled album by the Duhks, which was released by Sugar Hill in February. It’s the second album and first U.S. release from Podolak’s new-wave old-time band. Like Fleck, the Duhks have taken ancient string-band instruments and tunes and made them modern by adding new rhythms and new chord changes. Unlike Fleck, the Duhks do more vocal numbers than instrumentals, thanks to Jessica Havey, their remarkable singer.
Havey is eight years younger than Podolak, but she too grew up in Winnipeg with mixed feelings about folk music. She went to the festival every year, like most of her friends, but she was more interested in musical theater and starred in local productions of Godspell and the like. For her, the turning point was a local old-time band, led by none other than Leonard Podolak.
“I fell in love with Scruj MacDuhk and listened to their record constantly,” Havey confesses. “It was happy music, party music; it was so universal you could see little kids and really old people just having a ball with it. I would sit in the front row at their shows and dream that I could be up there.”
When Scruj MacDuhk split up in 2001 and Podolak put together the successor band, the Duhks, Havey was up there. These days, she’s the visual focal point for the group — a thin, stunning woman of ambiguous ethnicity with close-cropped, dyed-blonde hair, high cheekbones, and a left arm covered in swirling tattoos.
When the Duhks performed at the Americana Music Association Conference last September, the show began, as the album does, with “Death Came A Knockin'”, an old black-gospel number they learned from Ruthie Foster. Scott Senior, the band’s tall, bald-domed percussionist, sat atop his cajon (a hollow, wooden rhythm box) and slapped out a rippling Caribbean pulse.
Havey, wearing a black tank top emblazoned with the name of a favorite band (the Mammals), belted out the opening lines over Jordan McConnell’s acoustic guitar: “Death came a-knocking on my mama’s door, singing, ‘C’mon, Mama, ain’t you ready to go?'” This was not a fearful, fatalistic song about death; this was a brave acknowledgment that death can be the fitting climax to life if one has “done my duty.” The sense of celebration is reinforced by prickly banjo fills from Podolak, big and bear-like with his broad shoulders and curly dark hair, and by a soaring fiddle solo from Tania Elizabeth, her dark red hair drooping in her eyes.
After “The Magnolia Set” — a medley of uptempo Scottish, Quebecois and Metis instrumentals ending with a twin-fiddle number by Podolak — the Duhks shifted to “Four Blue Walls”. This composition by the Mammals’ Ruth Ungar is not your typical child abuse song; this victim is not a saintly sufferer, but rather one who acts out by picking up strangers in bars for rough sex. Havey captured all the frustration of those memories and compulsions in a piercing soprano, and when she ran out of words, Elizabeth’s scraping fiddle solo and Podolak’s stabbing banjo solo took over.
“‘Four Blue Walls’ requires a voice with power,” Podolak says. “You can’t sing a song like that if you don’t have the ability to lay everything on the line, and that’s what Jessica does every night. When you see her at the microphone, her hands are wrapped around it so tight. She never does anything halfway.”
The Duhks and the Mammals are on the leading edge of a movement of twentysomething old-time bands that are suddenly popping up all over North America. Groups such as Old Crow Medicine Show, Be Good Tanyas, the Cary Fridley Band, Ollabelle, Tarbox Ramblers, Po’ Girl, Uncle Earl, the Bills, Wailin’ Jennys, Red Stick Ramblers, Avett Brothers, Weary Boys, Boxcar Preachers, Foghorn Stringband, Crooked Jades, and Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops are attacking pre-bluegrass string-band music with a passion that puts more emphasis on energy and drama than historical accuracy.
“This community that we’re a part of is growing every month or so,” Havey observes. “Every time we go to a festival we meet a new, cool band. It feels like we’re at summer camp together.”
When A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter formed their band in 1927, old-time music was not a style they chose; it was simply the way people in their community made music. For Podolak, Havey and the rest of the Duhks, however, old-time was just one option on a long menu of choices. Why would musicians born in the 1970s and ’80s choose old-time music over bluegrass, country, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, jazz or anything else?
“Old-time has a loosey-groovy feel to it, both the music and the scene,” Podolak replies. “A lot of bluegrass bands are very slick, wear suits and are very tight. That’s cool and I love it, but I can see why kids who love Phish and Donna the Buffalo are listening to these young old-time bands, or starting bands themselves. They can identify with musicians who are hunched over their instruments so you can’t see their faces, who lock into this groove, who dress every which way and play every which way. That is an easy translation.
“There are a lot of electric bands out there, so why start another one? I love electric music, but old-time can be just as rocking. In fact, it can be more rocking because the rhythms are more varied. More physicality comes through because there’s less technology mediating it. What you’re hearing is what the dude is playing. You’re hearing the sound of the pick hitting the string.
“On the other hand, we can’t be purists. We don’t live in the mountains in the 1920s; we live in cities in the 21st century.”
Podolak originally figured he’d learn a few old-time banjo tunes from his dad and then move on to the newgrass that Fleck was playing. But the more he dove into the old Scottish, Appalachian, Irish and Quebecois tunes, the more he lost interest in going anywhere else. In 1995 he founded an alternative string band with the silly, youthful name of Scruj MacDuhk. The group’s best-known lineup included Podolak, singer-pianist Ruth Moody, singer-guitarist Jeremy Walsh, fiddler Jeremy Penner, bassist Oliver Swain and percussionist Christian Dugas.
Scruj MacDuhk made one live album and one studio album, but in 2001 the band fell apart for the usual reasons of musical and personal differences compounded by too much touring and not enough money. Moody eventually joined the Wailin’ Jennys; Walsh released a solo singer-songwriter album; Penner is on the road with the Bills; Dugas is a session musician in Winnipeg; Penner and Swain toured with the Red Stick Ramblers.
“I didn’t really know what to do next,” Podolak admits. “I felt like I had hit the wall and everything had been pulled out from beneath me. I was freaking out big time. As it happened, Jessica’s uncle, Marshall Dana, was renting a basement room in my parents’ house, and he said, ‘Are you going to start another band? Call Jessica; she just graduated from high school.'”
“Leonard called me up,” Havey recalls, “and said, ‘What are you doing next year?’ I said, ‘I’m moving to Vancouver to study acting.’ He said, ‘How about staying in Winnipeg and joining a band?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ I’ve always been one to go with my instincts and not worry, and I just had a feeling this was the right thing to do. My uncle was really excited about it, and it was something definite; I didn’t have a definite plan for Vancouver.”
Havey didn’t know a lot about old-time music, but her experience playing different roles in musical theater made her an excellent, flexible mimic, which proved invaluable as she learned Celtic and Appalachian tunes. Jordan McConnell, who had been a substitute for six months in Scruj MacDuhk, became the Duhks’ full-time guitarist. Tania Elizabeth, a fiddle prodigy from British Columbia who had sat in with Scruj MacDuhk whenever the band visited the west coast, agreed to move to Winnipeg.
“Around this time, Rodrigo Munoz had just returned to Winnipeg after studying percussion in Chile,” Podolak recalls. “I ran into him and told him I was looking for a percussionist who didn’t use a full drum kit, as we had done in Scruj, who wasn’t so over the top. He showed up for rehearsal with just a cajon. It had that driving pulse; it wasn’t that different from a bodhran. We discovered that when Jordan cranks the lower end of his guitar, the cajon picks up the lower frequencies and it sounds like we have a bass player. People will come up after shows and say, ‘You have a really great bass player,’ overlooking the fact that we don’t have a bass player.
“But once this band really started to go, Roddy realized he couldn’t do it, because he had his own musical projects and family. Roddy introduced his favorite student Scott to us, and Scott took what Roddy was doing and added a conga. Even though Latin percussion is not what you would expect in an old-time band, it really works. It goes completely with the band’s spirit, which is all about collaboration and experimentation.”
The turning point came when the Duhks were rehearsing “The Leather Wing Bat”, a song that showed up on their first album, 2002’s Your Daughters & Your Sons (produced by Mark Schatz, who is now Nickel Creek’s bassist). The Duhks learned this traditional number from a recording by Spider John Koerner, who did it very simple and straight, just voice and guitar. Elizabeth said, “Why don’t we put a groove into it?” and Havey responded by singing the conversation between a bat, an owl and a dove as if it were taking place in a smoky urban nightclub rather than a shady grove.
“Jessica completely transformed ‘The Leather Wing Bat’ into something jazzy and soulful,” Podolak marvels, “and that completely transformed how I thought about the band. I thought, ‘Why can’t an old-time string band use gospel vocals and Afro-Cuban percussion? Those are traditional musics too.'”