The Duhks,
Beyond the Blue
(Compass, 2014)

Beyond the Blue amounts to reclaimed life after a two-year hiatus for the Winnipeg-based Duhks, who now boast three new members alongside returned veteran Jessee Havey (vocals) and founding member Leonard Podolak (banjo), plus a passel of guest artists. As those who have already heard the band will anticipate, the music is played at a high level of technical skill. The production is complex and sophisticated, fashioning a fusion sound around a core folk sensibility, broadly defined.

The Duhks' sound wanders all over the place, everywhere from Appalachia to Memphis to French Canada to Afro-Cuba. You could call it adventurous, or you could complain it is stretched dangerously thin. Generally, one gets the impression of an outfit consisting of superior players with a range of musical interests and kept together by the accommodation of everybody. It could be argued that if you want to hear the ethnic styles in question, plenty of accomplished performers who have worked in these genres for many years are hearable without much difficulty. (I suppose the same could be said of the sainted Ry Cooder.) The trick is to conjure up enough originality to dodge the accusation of musical tourism.

I know only a little about Afro-Cuban, some about Memphis soul, black gospel and French-Canadian fiddle tunes, and a whole lot about Southern mountain music. In short, I confess to less than limitless authority. All I can say is that I like much of what I hear here, and I can't point to anything dislikable or manifestly failed. In my judgment the rearrangements of old American traditionals ("Lazy John," "Banjo Roustabout") are in the spirit -- though certainly not in any imitative sense -- of what Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span did with British folk music in the 1970s; in other words, pulling off a nontraditional approach that somehow doesn't subvert the authenticity of the much rougher source materials. The Duhks' reading of Caroline Herring's "Black Mountain Lullaby" is at once lovely and wrenching.

For all its innovation and eclecticism, Beyond the Blue is closer to folk music than are most modern singer-songwriters, who while often identified as "folk singers" are rooted in pop and rock. On the other hand, there's plenty of pop and rock in the Duhks, too. So be warned: if you're seeking folk in the straightforward sense (which probably means you fall into an older demographic than the typical Duhks fan), you may wish to look elsewhere. This is folk as a commercially viable entity in the 21st century, done with flair, imagination and chops.

music review by
Jerome Clark

13 September 2014

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