Comforts of home and away

Mar 27, 2006Reviews, Series 18


Those inspired musical Canadians keep descending on us, and we’re richer for the invasion. In January, the “Sings Like Hell” concert series at the Lobero hosted the young Vancouver-based band Po’ Girl, and Saturday’s edition in the series featured the eagerly awaited local debut of the acclaimed young band The Duhks, from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Like Po’ Girl, but with stronger all-around musicianship, The Duhks take the long, wide view of musical style, moving from its folk base to soul, gospel and hoedowns from many locales and cultures.

At the risk of fixating excessively on geographical bearings, The Duhks’ homebase, in virtually the center of North America, ideally situates them for the artful reach of their stylistic tentacles in all continental directions. Among Canadian idioms, they tap into Quebecoise and Cape Breton music, and freely drift down to Appalachia, Cajun turf, and the rootsy American South.

The Duhks fulfilled high expectations at the Lobero, but the band didn’t entirely own the evening. This was one of those double-bills in the “Sings Like Hell” series where each half of the bill was of equal intensity. Opening the show was the remarkable young Virginian singer-songwriter Devon Sproule. She, in fact, may have qualified as the more revelatory act of the night, if only because she’s a more emerging artist than The Duhks, whose upward motion is well-established by now.

Sproule, born in Canada but partly raised in her current home state of Virginia, is a real sensation, a charming, guileless song artist who pushes the folk idiom into a corner of her own devising. Recently married to musician Paul Curreri and based in Charlottesville, Va., Sproule often uses the song medium to celebrate the comforts of home and the virtue of happily settling with a certain someone, in a certain somewhere, as in “Keep Your Silver Shined.”

Throughout her short but potent set, Sproule kept skillfully cross-stitching folkish sounds and trickier, jazzier twists of melodic line and vocal phrasing, from the sweet folkie fluidity of “Does the Day Feel Long?” to the jazz frippery of “Let’s Go Out.” Coincidentally, Sproule can sometimes recall the relaxed eclectic instincts of Madeleine Peyroux, but she’s really onto something all her own.

A wowed audience urged her into an encore, a stunning, warmly melancholic song called “Plea for a Good Night’s Rest.” Shades of hymnal song qualities and a sagely grace give the song the feeling of a classic-in-waiting. Through her Lobero set, Sproule instantly gained a place on our “remember that name” list reserved for gifted new artists deserving love and respect, and maybe even fame (although she may be too smart for that).

From the self-contained energy of Sproule’s set, the evening exploded into an ensemble feeling as The Duhks kicked off their varied set with a Celtic-colored barnstormer of an instrumental. Lead singer Jessica Harvey soon joined in, lending her rootsy and soulful timbres in a set which moved seamlessly between genres without ever seeming like a scattered musical smorgasbord.

The band is, in some ways, built around the alluring force of Tania Elizabeth’s hearty fiddling, enmeshed in a band sound with guitarist Jordan McConnell’s foursquare strumming (also doubling in the bassist role) and band founder Leonard Podolak’s banjo playing. Percussionist Scott Senior adds a new twist to the “new acoustic” genre, with hits mutant collection of instruments, including the flamenco-based caj0x97n, a conga, bongos, and cymbals. Somehow, he integrates naturally into the band’s collective voice.

Founded almost five years ago, the band seems to have both found its groove and is still young enough to be actively defining and retooling itself. They drew material from their two existing albums, “Your Daughters & Your Sons” and last year’s “The Duhks,” and beyond. Saturday’s set included several tunes from a newly-recorded album, which won’t be released until this summer.

Displaying rich vocal harmonies and sparkling instrumental skill, the band kept us guessing and satisfied, from the sonorous folkloric antiquity of “Three Fishers” to the fiery zydeco workout of “Down to the River.” One of a few encores they pulled out was yet another version of the oft-covered Randy Newman tune “Political Science,” but with their own refreshing twist.

An implicit theme of the evening, despite its wandering genre compass, had to do with the idea that regionalism is alive and well and may be more important than ever in an age threatened by cultural homogeneity. These acts, happily ensconced in Winnipeg and Charlottesville, respectively, gave us fetching musical field reports from home, through worldly filters.