Just Duhky

Two founding members of local neo-folk band thrilled to be back together with new musical lineup


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THE Duhks are back -- but then, they never really went away.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/01/2015 (2999 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THE Duhks are back — but then, they never really went away.

The groundbreaking Winnipeg neo-folk act led by banjoist/vocalist Leonard Podolak never formally broke up, nor did it ever officially go on hiatus — “we never went a year without a gig,” Podolak says. Still, you’d be forgiven if you thought it had, which is why Thursday night’s show at the West End Cultural Centre — a hometown celebration of Beyond the Blue, the band’s first album since 2008’s Fast Paced World — feels like such a big deal. After a tumultuous period marked by momentum-killing lineup changes, the Duhks are back. Not reunited, exactly, but reborn.

Anchored by founding members Podolak and vocalist Jessee Havey — who left the band in 2007 and rejoined in 2011 — the Duhks 2.0 is rounded out by a new cast of players, including Kevin Garcia on percussion, Colin Savoie-Levac on guitar and, making her debut tonight, Swedish fiddle phenom Anna Lindblad.

“Jess and I are in a place where we’re surrounded by tremendous musicians who have embraced the band musically and vibe-wise, and we couldn’t be happier,” Podolak says.

Or relieved — after all, it took a long time for Podolak and Havey to get where they are now.

IN 2007, the Duhks were, ahem, flying high (first and last duck joke, promise). The Juno-winning band — which then included Scott Senior on drums/percussion, Jordan McConnell on guitar and Tania Elizabeth on fiddle — was touring tirelessly in support of its third album, 2006’s Tim O’Brien-produced Migrations. The record was aptly titled; the Winnipeg band was making major waves stateside with its collage of soul, blues, gospel, old-time country string band and zydeco, with Latin-inspired percussion serving as the backbone for Celtic- and Cajun-style fiddle. Not only was the band two albums into a deal with the prestigious North Carolina imprint Sugar Hill Records, the track Heaven’s My Home netted it a nomination at the 2007 Grammy Awards for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

From an outsider’s perspective, it looked like the band was making it. But inside the group, things were falling apart — and, in March 2007, Havey announced she was leaving the band. “I had to leave when I did,” she says, over the phone. “It was too crazy. I was totally imploding — we all were. It was the hardest decision to make, but I had to put myself first and be selfish.” She has no regrets.

While Havey took the time she needed to take care of herself, Podolak forged on with Sarah Dugas handling Havey’s vocal duties. Sarah’s brother Christian took over on the kit when Senior decided that he needed to spend more time with his family. This iteration of the Duhks recorded Fast Paced World, which earned a Juno nomination — but the mood within the band was no lighter.

Podolak says that there were interpersonal issues, as well as disagreements between the band and its management. “Basically, all the typical Spinal Tap-ian issues that bands trying to make it all go through,” he says. “When it came down to it, we were tired. Sick and tired. We weren’t getting along and we weren’t making any money.”

Still, slowing down seemed preferable to breaking up. Breaking up was too final. Too permanent. “But we really started wondering if we might be done,” Podolak says. By 2010, the Dugas siblings had decided to go off on their own, recording and performing as the duo Dugas — a split Podolak describes as “clean and generous” — and fiddler Elizabeth also announced she’d be leaving the band.

Podolak, as ever, was determined to solider on. And he knew who he had to call.

— — —

IN 2011, Havey was working at Manitoba Theatre for Young People. She loved the gig — she was doing some administration work, as well as teaching musical theatre — but she was starting to burn out. She wasn’t cut out for 9-to-5 working life. “(Former MTYP artistic director) Leslee Silverman walked by my desk one day and told me, ‘If you’re still here in a year, I’m going to be mad at you,'” Havey recalls with a laugh. “I was missing performing full time.”

One morning, she was on her way to work when Podolak called. “He said, ‘Listen, Christian and Sarah have their own thing going on now, but we’re still getting all these requests for bookings and would you consider…’ and I just started crying. I was overjoyed. I was just like, ‘Yes, yes! Whatever you want!'”

For Havey, the opportunity to rejoin the Duhks was a gift.

“I didn’t think I’d get the chance to do this again. For the first year, I’d look around and sort of melt down with love. And the fans have been great. A lot of them told me, ‘We thought we’d never see you again.’ It’s nice to approach it from an older and wiser place. It’s easy to take things for granted when you’re young,” she says, noting that she joined the band as a fresh-faced Kelvin High School grad.

The Duhks played a few festival gigs and theatre dates throughout 2012 and 2013, with the original lineup intact — but they knew they couldn’t keep going without a new record. “We wanted people to know that we mean business and that we’re back at it,” Havey says. “That it’s not a little reunion tour.”

“I said to the band, ‘Are we going to do this? Because there’s a certain amount of being a band that we needed to do,'” Podolak recalls. “And they were like, ‘Peace out, Leonard! I’m making guitars!'” (He’s jokingly referring to guitarist McConnell, who is now a luthier with his own shop. Podolak is nothing but supportive. “That’s what best friends do for each other,” he says.)

When it came time to record Beyond the Blue, “I didn’t want to do it like we did our other records,” Podolak says. This time, there would be no Nashville, no big-name producer. Instead, the band financed the recording with gig money, credit cards and an Indiegogo campaign that raised just over $18,000. Recorded in upstate New York by Mike Merenda and Ruth Unger of the Mammals, Beyond the Blue listens like a record made among friends.

— — —

The recording sessions weren’t without their challenges, brought about by yet more lineup changes. Elizabeth, who is on the album, left the Duhks again, this time to join the Avett Brothers’ touring band, and was replaced by Rosie Newton. Senior, meanwhile, was replaced by Brooklyn drummer/percussionist Kevin Garcia, while McConnell, who is also on the album, was eventually replaced by Colin Savoie-Levac, a 19-year-old wunderkind out of St-Jean-de-Matha, Que., after a long, agonizing search for a guitarist, the details of which could fill a separate article. Fiddler Newton decided not to stay on for 2015’s touring commitments, so the band enlisted Lindblad for the Duhks’ upcoming tour after Podolak kept hearing rave reviews.

The logistical headaches of finding and re-acclimating to new members have been worth it, though.

“You can look at this as instability in the band, or you can look at it as a more organic way to build a band.” Podolak says.

“I always used to say the Duhks were the folk version of the Spice Girls, in that Leonard basically said, ‘I want you, and you, and you — now co-exist,'” Havey says. “And it was a circus. When I’d see other bands, it’d be like, ‘Oh, they were all friends beforehand! That makes sense!’ That just wasn’t my experience. But it is now.”

And through it all, Duhks fans have stood by their band.

“The response from the fans have been truly overwhelming,” Havey says. “They really lifted us up and inspired us. They confirmed that this was something they wanted to have more of in their lives. They still want us.”


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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.


Updated on Thursday, January 8, 2015 9:37 AM CST: Adds photo

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