Beyond the Blue
I was very chuffed to see Canadian neo-folkies The Duhks invited to the Americana Festival in Nashville this year. Having had their June 2014 release Beyond The Blue (Compass Records) in my mind, ears and heart for the past few days, I am anticipating their live performances with great relish.
Beyond the Blue is indeed long-awaited. A thirteen-year career, personnel changes, a two-year hiatus and the return of vocalist Jessee Havey and the addition of new members, brings us to this new, fine point. Along with the new members – fiddler Rosie Newton, drummer/percussionist Kevin Garcia, and guitarist/bouzouki player Colin Savoie-Levac, The Duhks founder Leonard Podolak found an amazing pallet of inspiration for the new project:
“All of the people who have been in the band over the years, including non-touring founding members Tania Elizabeth and Jordan McConnell (who both appear on the album) have had a hand in shaping our sound and direction.
The goal with the new record was to draw on everything we’ve learned over the years and everything we know about where we want to take the music now and create something as fresh, exciting and forward thinking as possible.”
Toward that end, the band turned to the rising production team of Mike + Ruthy (Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar of The Mammals), who brought a progressive approach to production that was still firmly rooted in the traditions of folk music.
Beyond The Blue is a heady concoction. It keeps you on your toes. The title track opens proceedings and it is a terrific cover of the Beth Nielsen Chapman/Gary Nicholson tune with pitch-perfect vocals and pitter-patter banjo propelling us forward. “Banjo Rousabout” is a stunner – more banjo underpinning with an increasingly urgent tempo as instrumentation rises with beautiful fiddle and percussion until a return ebb before the cycle quickly re-establishes itself – the production is stellar. “Suffer No Fools” continues the impressive showcasing of Havey’s delightful voice, on this song I am reminded of Roseanne Cash. The first trio of songs are headed by Havey’s wistful vocals and her return to the band is obviously critical to the sound on the album.
Then the pace and mood changes. “Burn” is The Band-esque, a deliberately ramshackle vocal outing from Podolak. The violin riff here is strident, driving the track which is part blues, part Americana. “These Dreams” starts somewhat surprisingly with trumpet and is the closest thing to a rocker on the CD. “Black Mountain Lullaby” is indeed a lullaby. Slow, soothing narrative – traditional folk themes here, about family and love – the violin and claw hammer banjo beautifully entwined. “Tonderhoning” is a pretty instrumental jig while “Lazy John” has strong cajun themes, both musically and lyrically. “Je Pense A Toi” continues the diversity, french lyrics, monastery vocals and gypsy violin so in unison that I don’t know what to call it – other than very good!
“You Go East, I’ll Go West” was co-written by Podolak and Ungar (Jay Ungar’s daughter) and is an apt title. A kossack violin morphs into a traditional American intricate folk piece, Rosie Newton’s fiddle putting on a star turn (indeed a centrifugal force throughout the album) and the vocal harmonies adding depth in the final stanza of the track – this is heady stuff. Ruth Ungar’s “Just One Step Away” is a new direction yet again, joyous gospel as the band members share their considerable instrumental skills collegiately. “Je Pense A Toi” as a reprise is the closing track, this time the accordion is more out front.
The Duhks in this configuration are imposing indeed. Beyond The Blue is a highly proficient, musically diverse and emotionally engaging body of work. If you are in Nashville this September for the Americana Festival, go see ’em. If you’re not, go listen to Beyond The Blue.