The mighty Duhks

Canadian band takes bluegrass in new direction

THE DUHKS STOP HERE Vocalist Jessee Havey captivates a sold-out crowd at The Big Room.

THE DUHKS STOP HERE Vocalist Jessee Havey captivates a sold-out crowd at The Big Room.

Photo By Tom Angel

The Duhks Sierra Nevada Big Room Tues., July 5

The Sierra Nevada Big Room was already full when I arrived for The Duhks’ show Tuesday night, and it was good to see that the middle-aged men in the house had received the memo about its being Hawaiian shirt day.

Opener Brett Dennen was already plucking away on his acoustic guitar, too. Accompanied only by a drummer, the boyish singer/songwriter with a reddish coif played a short set of mellow, endearing acoustic ballads.

The songs sort of scooted along, but Dennen’s playing was impressive, and his vocals were smooth and controlled, at times sounding eerily like Tracy Chapman. That’s a good thing. It’s no wonder the kid who cites Simon and Garfunkel as a major influence will be playing Central Park later this month, opening for Grammy winner Shelby Lynne.

By the time The Duhks took the stage, audience members had been quaffing Pale Ales and glasses of wine for a good hour and a half. But aside from a handful of folks who were moved to dance, the crowd remained relatively calm throughout the show.

“You’re such a well-behaved audience,” Duhks vocalist Jessee Havey said in jest. “It’s hard to believe there’s alcohol being served, let alone that this is a brewery.”

Maybe the audience was just in awe—after all, the five-piece bluegrass band out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was quite impressive to watch.

Sporting a shaved head and sleeve of tattoos down her left arm, Havey led the group with her voice, which melded perfectly with violinist Tania Elizabeth’s backing vocals. And Elizabeth belted them out as she dexterously attacked her violin, to the point where she was constantly yanking stray horse hairs from her bow between songs.

The rhythm section wasn’t half bad, either. Jordan McConnel, who builds his own guitars, provided the bottom end with thumping finger-picking, while Leonard Podolak added some extra twang on the banjo. And percussionist Scott Senior hid behind an impressive selection of congas, bongos and a cajón drum, a wooden box that he slapped with his hands.

The Duhks (pronounced “ducks") have been described as “progressive soul-grass” and “kick-ass rock/folk fusion.” Forget the nifty labels—the band has a knack for adding pop sensibilities and song craft to traditional bluegrass numbers, highlighted by the group’s warm harmonies.

And even when The Duhks delivered traditional bluegrass songs, the band did a fine job of alternating between instrumental jams to shorter country ditties and offered a little something for everyone—even those who didn’t get the memo about Hawaiian shirt day.