The Duhks are the sort of hyper-versatile folk outfit that transcends standard genre classifications. They’re equally capable of kickin’ up soulful rock, sliding over into a country groove and breaking into the occasional Celtic jam. Such flexibility has earned the multi-talented Canadian quintet a reputation as a crossover threat, and they’re currently riding the success of a critically acclaimed eponymous American debut to live appearances on National Public Radio and the Country Music Channel. Yet for all of their skill, The Duhks still found themselves in deep water when a scheduling conflict on an early leg of their current tour found the band sharing the stage with four hardcore metal bands, including Pigface and Sheep on Drugs.
“When we pulled up to the place there were four other tour buses, and we weren’t sure what was going on. Then, this guy they call Th’Enigma [a solo hardcore act on tour with Pigface] pops out from one of the tour buses and he’s all tattooed on his head and pierced everywhere—it was wild,” explains Duhks founder and banjo player Leonard Podolak. “They all watched us during the soundcheck and looked a little unsure—we all were—but when we started playing everyone was freakin’ out and lovin’ it. It was kind of cool to play in front of a crowd so totally different.”
It’s a testament to The Duhks’ live performance that they could hold their own in such a potentially unwelcoming setting. But the band has been cutting its chops on the road since 2002, and their recent success has them playing comfortably in front of increasingly diverse crowds. Podolak rattles off stories of the current tour, noting the band is starting to draw just as many “frat boys” as “folkies”—not to mention metal-heads—all of which is fine by him.
“A lot of our shows have turned into jam dances and party scenes, and that makes me happy,” says Podolak. “We’ve always tried to put on great shows and it just seems that more people are reaching out and appreciating that. It goes to our whole mission as a band to change the way folk is defined.”
That mission makes sense considering the band’s unconventional components. Podolak was emerging from a breakup with a former group when his father, who organizes the Winnipeg Folk Festival, suggested he hook up with longtime friend and festival volunteer Jessee Havey. Decked in tattoos, flashing a steely-eyed smile and sporting a razor-sharp haircut, Havey’s aesthetics are striking, and her expressive, earthy vocals mesmerizing. “We had an instant vibe,” says Podolak.
Add Tania Elizabeth (at the time a 14-year-old fiddling prodigy), Jordan McConnell (a guitar maker who grew up playing punk) and Scott Senior (an Afro-Cuban percussionist recommended by the band’s original drummer, and Senior’s mentor, Rodrigo Munoz), and The Duhks were complete.
“I know everyone in the band from all different walks of life,” says Podolak. “It’s a very special thing when it comes together like this, but we all clicked from the start.”
The Duhks and their wide-ranging sound are not entirely unfamiliar to Missoula audiences; shortly after their inception, the band played a date at the now-defunct Blue Heron, and later opened for David Grisman at the UC Center. But the band hasn’t come through town since signing with folk powerhouse Sugar Hill Records and having heavyweights Bela Fleck and Gary Paczosa produce the new album. Surprisingly, the new release recognizes Montana in the liner notes, as Podolak reworked a traditional folk tune titled “Dance Hall Girls” as “Bozeemon Boogie”—a phrase coined after the band played the song to a raucous crowd in Bozeman last year.
“It’s been some time since we’ve played in Missoula, but we love it there. [The venues] have packed it in. Every time gets better and better,” says Podolak. “It’s good because usually you have no idea what’s gonna meet you.”
The band’s North Carolina date with metal proved that point, but that situation, like other recent occurrences, keeps Podolak and his bandmates thinking about who The Duhks are, and how to further refine the music they play. The founder is hesitant to say what’s in store for their future, but “It’s gonna change, I’m sure,” he says. “A lot? I don’t know. But I suspect it’ll change.
“We have the argument all the time on the tour bus as far what kind of band we are,” he says. “We may be a little bit rock ’n’ roll and we certainly can jam, but we certainly can’t claim to be punkers after that one show. I know Jessee [Havey] would argue with me on that one, but I think that’s one area we may have to work on.”
The Duhks play The Other Side Saturday, June 11, at 9 PM. Tickets are $12 for over 21 and $14 for those under. firstname.lastname@example.org