Not too long ago, old-time (and often old-world) jigs and Americana roots music looked as though they were going to die with their elder statesmen (at least in this country; perhaps Ireland never let up). As of late, however, the genres have seen a North American resurgence. As much as Christopher Guest pokes fun at the bluegrass and folk experience in his latest mockumentary A Mighty Wind, viewers sense that even Guest isn’t ready to throw those records in the trash, as many did toward the end of disco’s reign of terror.
Still, no musical style can keep its pistons pumping without new blood, and for a long drought period, the bluegrass, Celtic and roots sounds were hanging by a thin thread of aging performers who were leaving legacies—but few apprentices to be seen—in their wake.
Until recently, that is. Now, young musicians such as those in Yonder Mountain String Band, the Single Malt Band and Old Crow Medicine Show are giving their beloved old genre a much-needed injection of youthful vigor. And it’s not just young Americans from the Rocky Mountains bringing the tradition back to life: Winnipeg, Manitoba quartet The Duhks are resuscitating the bluegrass and Celtic sounds for our northern neighbors as well.
The Duhks are at that age where you sense that they could play all night long. Once the bar shuts down, show them a campfire and I’d be willing to bet they’ll still have several hours left in them. Fiddler Tania Elizabeth is a mere 19, yet she’s already taught at the prestigious Mark O’Connor fiddle camp in Nashville. Jessica Havey, the Duhks’ vocalist who brings the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan to mind, is only 20. Guitarist Jordan McConnell is 22. With such youth, one might imagine that the Duhks’ sound would need some time to coalesce, but, marvelously, the band seems to have nailed it on the first take. This may be partly due to the guidance of Leonard Podolak. Podolak is the man who assembled the talented young performers in the Duhks. He also plays an incredible clawhammer banjo, doing things to the five-string that I thought were outlawed, or at least frowned upon, in Canada.
Offering the best of the Old World—Celtic romps, French-Canadian reels—and blending in relatively newer sounds, from old-timey Appalachian bluegrass to more modern folk numbers, the Duhks’ bread and butter is the quartet’s arrangements of traditional tunes. For Woody Guthrie fans, their latest album, Your Daughters and Your Sons, features a particularly winning arrangement of “Pretty Boy Floyd.” Havey’s sweet but tough voice shimmers on the Celtic ballads. On the more upbeat numbers, Elizabeth’s fiddle and Podolak’s banjo play off one another and build a natural rhythm as if to say, “Drums? We don’t need no stinking drums!” Layered below these two, it’s easy to overlook McConnell’s guitar, but when the six-string comes to the fore for a 4/4 solo, it becomes clear that we’re dealing with a band without a weak link.
And when such vitality shines through on a recording, you can bet the live show must be truly dynamic. After their upcoming performance, the Duhks will be returning to Missoula to open up for David Grisman and his crew in the fall. It is not a far stretch of the imagination to picture the Duhks sitting in with Grisman. They show every indication of an ability to hold their own with the Dawg, and that’s saying a lot.