Whatever Happened to…The Duhks

It’s interesting what can kick you off thinking about a band you haven’t thought of in a long time. A few weeks ago, when I was writing about our intention to re-name the ‘Forgotten Artists’ series, I wrote “We’re going to take a short break this week to get our aquatic birds queued appropriately…” a smart-arse way of saying we were going to get our ducks in a row – and that got me thinking about that excellent roots band, The Duhks!

Another of the seemingly limitless number of good roots music bands to emerge from America’s northern neighbour, The Duhks were formed in Winnipeg in 2002, bringing together French-Canadian fiddle player Tania Elizabeth, guitarist Jordan McConnell and singer Jessee Havey around founder and banjo player Leonard Podolak. The musicians were all working in and around the Canadian folk music scene but McConnell was heavily influenced by Celtic music, singer Jessee Havey was singing gospel and soul-influenced material and Tania Elizabeth was drawing on Canadian Cajun roots. The four of them connected really well, producing an eclectic mix of music that combined Celtic folk with Cajun and country-soul influences, all driven by Podolak’s hard, claw-hammer banjo sound, making them popular both on the live circuit and in the studio. Their first album, 2003s ‘Your Daughters and Your Sons’ was nominated for a Juno award and attracted the attention of American Bluegrass and Americana label Sugar Hill Records, who duly signed the band up and, two years later, The Duhks had added Latin influenced percussionist Scott Senior and recorded their eponymous second album. Produced by Bela Fleck, that recording went one better than their debut release and was not only nominated for a Juno but won the Best Roots & Traditional Album by a Group category. It was their first official release in America and brought them a lot of new fans, including significant fellow artists in the form of David Crosby and Doc Watson, who both raved about the band. At that year’s Folk Alliance Conference in Austin, Texas they picked up awards for both ‘Best Emerging Artist’ and ‘Best Band’ and, later that same year were named ‘Best Emerging Artist’ at the Americana Music Association awards.

The band just went from strength to strength and 2007 saw them pick up a Grammy nomination for Best Country Performance by a Group, for their single ‘Heaven’s My Home’, from third album ‘Migrations’, produced by Bluegrass superstar Tim O’Brien, and they were feted as one of the most innovative bands on the folk fusion scene. As is often the case with a band, just as everything was going their way things stalled a little, as first singer Havey quit, followed not long after by percussionist Senior. The band replaced Harvey with singer Sarah Dugas and then, later in the year, Dugas’ brother Christian took over the percussionist’s chair, bringing the band back up to strength and earning them yet another Juno nomination for their next studio album, 2008’s ‘Fast-Paced World’.

Something that is very noticeable about bands is that, once an original member leaves the band, it rarely stops at just the one. Next to leave the fold was fiddle player Tania Elizabeth, who departed the band in 2010. She was, temporarily, replaced by American fiddler, Casey Driessen, but this changed the dynamic of the band, making singer Sarah Dugas the only female and having quite an impact on their established sound. Later that year, with Sarah and brother Christian departing to pursue a career as a duo, the band went into an extended hiatus. This was a situation that continued for a couple of years as the band played occasional gigs but often with a changing line-up and no certainty around what was happening with the band’s future.

Then, at the beginning of 2012 the band re-emerged and with the classic line up of Havey, Elizabeth, McConnell, Podolak and Senior all restored to full activity. This line-up undertook a series of reunion tours but, once again, the band foundered without recording additional material and McConnell, Elizabeth and Senior all left the band, leaving a core of just Podolak and Havey. With an eye on putting together a new recording unit and getting a long-awaited fifth album out they recruited Kevin Garcia as a new, permanent member on percussion but only opted for temporary replacements on fiddle, Rosie Newton, and on guitar, Jefferson Hamer. It was this line-up that released 2014s ‘Beyond The Blue’. The album, yet again, came out to critical acclaim and it seemed that the seesawing activity of the previous couple of years had done nothing to damage their reputation as a band. Havey’s return had brought back the more gritty sound of their earlier years and this was enhanced by the fact that original members Elizabeth and McConnell, both contributed to the album. The permanent line-up of the band was settled when American multi-instrumentalist Colin Savoie-Levac joined as permanent guitarist (2014) and then, in the January of 2015, Swedish fiddle player Anna Lindblad became the final piece of the jigsaw that would see The Duhks restored to full glory, rejuvenated by their time away from the spotlight and clearly enjoying playing together as they resumed a furious schedule of live performing.

This final line-up remains the official line-up of The Duhks to this day but the twists and turns of the band’s story were not over yet. In 2016 the band announced that they would no longer be touring and that remained the case for a number of years, though it would appear that there have been some live performances as recently as 2019 and 2020 and that some of these have been with the original four-piece line-up of Podolak, Havey, Elizabeth and McConnell along with a variety of guest percussionists, usually at select festivals such as the Rhode Island Rhythm and Roots Festival. With their ability to combine Old Time, French Canadian and Celtic music with blues and soul feeling and Latin rhythms, The Duhks have always been a particularly enjoyable live outfit. It would be good to think that, once regular live shows start up again, they will be among the bands that return to our stages and that, perhaps, there could even be another studio album from this excellent band in future.

At this point in time, all members of The Duhks classic line-up remain active musically.

Leonard Podolak is still the titular leader of The Duhks and still actively posts on their Facebook page and his own. He’s been making music throughout the pandemic and the various lockdowns, particularly on streaming platforms like the Quarantine Happy Hour. His other active music work includes playing in Folk Trio, Dry Bones and working with American Fiddler, Matt Gordon.

Tania Elizabeth has been a member of the Avett Brothers touring band since 2013. She has contributed to recordings by Mary Gauthier and The Cowboy Junkies, among others, and also works as a solo artist.

Jordan McConnell is still a working guitarist and plays with a number of other musicians, most recently appearing with American Bluegrass and Country-Rock musician Tony Furtado. He is also a successful Luthier in his own right and hand builds his custom made guitars, distinguished by beautiful tonewoods and high-grade inlay work, in his small Winnipeg workshop, inherited from his father.

Jessee Havey married American singer/songwriter Nathaniel Good in 2016, having started a musical collaboration that turned into a romantic relationship. They now work together on a range of creative projects under the group name Nation of Two.

Scott Senior was a member of The Dirty Catfish Brass Band for a while and most recently recorded with Winnipeg Folk/Roots duo Roger Roger.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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One of my band lifers! I promoted 10+ Duhks shows and they are like family. Good humans and amazing friends. Miss all our migrations together and sending invite for a reunion or any of your musical and good work to fly down to Michigan and our 100 acre 1952 historic ski mountain revival @MtMancelona built for arts and ideas as well as recording, live stream, writing retreat cabins and our sleep 35 old lodge and stage.

Maureen Brennan

And then there are those of us who never forget the Duhks and continue to try to lead them down south. We really do miss them – and will host them any time they want to come.