The summer folk festival circuit is one of those markets where everyone tries to put on a very cheerful, altruistic face, but is rife with cut-throat competition. Canadian folk festivals, for example, can be seen in various major centers and even small communities throughout the summer months, with each buyer or booker of talent trying to score some big acts while also making sure that up-and-coming bands get their day in the sun. One of those Canadian bands who isn’t quite the “big name” yet, but has worn out its welcome as an “up-and-comer” has to be the Duhks. You won’t mistake the Winnipeg band for the New Christie Minstrels anytime soon on appearance. Yet the group, led by singer Jessee Havey, is now three albums into its career. And it’s not quite folk, rather something they dub as “soulgrass”. However, Celtic isn’t far from the band’s heart on this record.
It’s this “soulgrass”, led by Havey’s big, brassy and bluesy delivery, which makes the opening “Ol’ Cook Pot” start with a lovable, infectious, strolling kind of vibe. Accented with fiddle, Havey sings the track with conviction and passion even if lyrically it’s not that memorable. Think of it as a distant cousin of “Mockingbird” and you would get the gist of this tune. From there, the Duhks push their musical boundaries out with a rootsy-folk-Latin-tinged track called “Mountains of Things”. The beat moves to your hips while fiddler/violinist Tania Elizabeth weaves her magic throughout. This track’s content is more politically oriented, as Havey sings about material things being created by exploited workers. Considering it’s a cover of Tracy Chapman, that shouldn’t come as any huge shock. It ends with sweet harmonies reminiscent of Aussie group, the Waifs.
While the group is quite seasoned and stellar, Havey is what makes these songs shine and come off as being quite special. The tender lullaby-meets-ballad “Heaven’s My Home” has some spacey touches painted around Havey’s strong, powerful and capable pipes. She can move from the blues to folk or alt.country with the slightest of ease, even if it’s just a change of note here or there. The first track that leaves you slightly disappointed is the winding and somewhat airy instrumental, “The Fox and the Bear”. It builds on Elizabeth’s fiddle with a Celtic-ish fire in the song’s belly, not quite galloping towards a reel or jig, but up-tempo enough to get your appendages moving in some form or fashion. Perhaps the first real surprise is not hearing Havey for “Down to the River” which is done by fiddler and singer Leonard Podolak. The bouncy, Cajun flavor is what sells this ditty, while Podolak sounds like the second coming of John Hiatt on some verses. It’s also the type of song that could be a great crowd pleaser as the band fully fleshes out the closing portion.
The Duhks have an ear for knowing an album’s sequence, with this toe-tapper leading into a gorgeous “Who Will Take My Place?”, a sparse number that sounds like it was produced by Daniel Lanois. Here, Havey once again is front and center, and nails the tune out of the park, with the power coming to the surface during the song’s homestretch. The group revisits this realm later on with “Three Fishers”, with equally pretty results. Perhaps the biggest surprise though is “Moses Don’t Get Lost”, which starts off a tad limp and lackadaisical. But the band shift gears, going from a rather ordinary and slightly weak performance to a tight, finger-snapping and lively romp resembling some Southern church on a Sunday morning. And how they manage to make these songs roll with as much flow as the instrumental “Domino Party!” is quite something indeed. Here they opt for something that Altan, the Corrs pre-crossover or Natalie MacMaster would step-dance to, or jump on stage, pick up an instrument and start playing to.
The Duhks, who had this album co-produced by Tim O’Brien, seem to have found their footing with this album. And if this is an omen of what’s to come, that “big name” tag for folk festivals will be a matter of when, not if.