may 2009

Report From a Fast-Paced World

By David McGee

The Duhks' Sarah Dugas in full emotive dudgeon, veering towards Olympian stature. (Photo by Will Byington)

The Duhks
Highline Ballroom
New York, NY
April 15, 2009

"Wwwwoooooooahhhhhoooohaawooohaaaaaaaaa—you need coolin' baby, I'm not foolin/I'm gonna send you back to schoolin'...

Imagine if you will a band comprised of banjo, acoustic guitar, fiddle and drums, approximating the gut-pounding thunder of Led Zep in its prime grinding through "Whole Lotta Love."

Pshaw! you say, because without Robert Plant...

Well, guess what? The Duhks have one Sarah Dugas, whose smoldering beauty will set a thousand ships asail and whose uncommonly powerful, and expressive, voice can tickle those Plantian G spots "way down inside" men and woman alike and leave one and all suitably limp, in many respects, so to speak and I read the news today, oh, boy.

When the Canadian progressive bluegrassers returned to New York for the first time since a heralded gig at Joe's Pub last fall (documented in's October 2008 cover story), they appeared as a different band—same personnel, different band. It's not merely a product of the quintet adding a couple more Cajun numbers to its onstage repertoire—one of which Sarah's brother Christian (the drummer who joined the Duhks along with his sibling on the latest album, Fast Paced World) sang with impressive fervor—to go with its assemblage of stirring jigs, hoedowns, Brecht-Weill-like broodings (the dark, ominous surge of "All Fall Down") and pop-inflected tunes; nor is it attributable to the breathtaking synergy the musicians share in their joyous march to a set's finale—"Whole Lotta Love," by name—or the mighty storm of the band's ensemble yawp. It's not merely reticent Duhk Jordan McConnell's indefatigable, muscular rhythm guitar attack, or impish, dreadlocked Tania Elizabeth's keening vocal harmonies and aggressive, soulful fiddle support, which becomes at times a second voice complementing Sarah's emotional outpourings. It's not really even the visual treat the gals supply; or as one concert goer summarized the Tania-Sarah fashion axis: "Right on point: sexy but not slutty, slightly sophisticated and a touch rock 'n roll."

No, the marked difference between the Duhks here and now and those of this past fall comes down to Sarah Dugas. On that point, we hold these truths as self-evident: in full emotive dudgeon, her svelte figure and shimmying, swaying hips enhance the sensual nature of or undercurrent in many of the band's songs. Beyond this, the strength of character in her strong, angular features—cheekbones to die for, ladies—radiates from the stage and rivets an audience's attention on her and, consequently, on her message. But all of this was present when last we encountered the group in concert. What's changed is Sarah's command of the stage and the room. She takes both like she owns them, as great lead singers do. At Joe's Pub she seemed more a spectral presence, singing like nobody's business, of course, but deferring between songs to the group's visionary founder/banjo master/philosopher in residence, Leonard Podolak, whose engaging stage persona leans to the Everyman pole, whereas Sarah, now, veers toward Olympian stature. It's a subtle difference, difficult—nay, impossible—to quantify but easy to sense from an audience standpoint. For those old enough to remember, it's akin to the wobbly command Mick Jagger demonstrated on the road in 1969 (see the Maysles Brothers' documentary Gimme Shelter for proof) and the unswerving authority he exhibited on the (more controlled) Stones' 1972 tour—a period of three years. It's been but a year since audiences were introduced to Sarah as a Duhk. For his part, Podolak seems fine with ceding the bully pulpit to her in concert. In fact, among the multitude of highs this show offered was the sight of Podolak, on multiple occasions, tossing his frizz-maned head back and breaking into a wide, beatific smile, enjoying a moment of grand and glorious music making by supremely skilled artists, and perhaps exulting in a moment's reflection on how far he had traveled across the years to hear the music he had always envisioned himself being part of now in fact being fully realized in all dimensions by this incarnation of Duhks.

Without memorable songs, though, what's the point? No problem. The Duhks bring it, and keep bringing it from start to finish: the first song was a smoldering version of Dan Frechette's stunning heartbreaker centered on romantic disconnect, "You Don't See It," with Sarah alternately aggrieved and vulnerable, singing strong and forceful in the choruses, breathy and wounded in the verses, as Tania Elizabeth sawed a jittery, unsettling counterpoint fiddle line. Thus began a run of songs from Fast Paced World, a rich procession of musings socially conscious, culturally resonant and/or whimsically personal: As per the latter, Sarah introduced the woozy "Sleepin' Is All I Wanna Do" by explaining how her response to a day of crisis decision-making was to snooze instead, and her droopy-eyed vocal emphasized the point; a pounding treatment of "Fast Paced World," a Sarah Dugas original inspired by the ferocious protest music of the late Nigerian father of Afrobeat and dedicated human rights activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti; "Mighty Storm," which effects a gospel surge and roar in wailing about a hurricane "that blew the people all away," in such a manner you understand the catastrophe in question is both an act of God and a metaphysical nightmare. Later, Sarah set up her song "Toujours Valours" by translating one of its key lyrics for the audience: "One day for love to reign/and for money to lose its meaning.'' As Podolak told this writer back in October, "People hear 'to lose its value' and go silent. Silence! Like, 'Oh, no, we don't agree with that at all.' But what we're trying to say is that one day we're not going to be working just to survive and living to survive, but actually working for society, and contributing, and loving life. And being able to live our lives to the fullest."

So there was substance, and plenty of it. But there was plenty of bon temps roulez too, be it in the form of Podolak's jaunty, playful reimagining of a road trip he took on "95 South," or—a real and rare treat—the rocking good-time feel of "Dance Hall Girls," from the band's self-titled Sugar Hill debut (or as Podolak calls it, Duhks Duhks), a pre-Dugas classic that Sarah put her imprint on here with a vocal worthy of a '60s teen queen. They even got the seated crowd on its feet for some high stepping frolic after "Suicide Boy." Encoring with "Whole Lotta Love," with a force and fury they chose not to unleash in the version they performed at Joe's Pub but did so here with blitzkrieg power, the Duhks appeared to be, on this night, in this place, at this moment in time, the best live band on the planet. When you can leave a concert hall with that feeling, love does indeed reign, and money has lost its value.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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