By James Keelaghan
Every now and again I play a little game with myself. I imagine which musician I would like to be. Sometimes I’d like to be Phil Ochs, sometimes Captain Beefheart. Lately, I’ve wanted to be Claire Lynch.
Claire possesses that high reedy voice that is the hallmark of Anglo-American roots music. It’s reminiscent of Alison Krauss or Hazel Dickens. She can whip you into a frenzy with a holler or seduce you with a lullaby. When Dolly Parton says you are one of her favourite vocalists you must be doing something right. The International Bluegrass Association agrees. Claire Lynch is a three time winner of their Female Vocalist of the Year award.
There are singers and there are songwriters. Sometimes you have singers who sing their own songs but they really aren’t writers. Sometimes you have songwriters who sing their own songs, but they aren’t really singers. It’s very rare that you find someone who can really do both.
Claire Lynch is that person. Her songs have been recorded by Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea and others. At the IBMA’s last year she also won the Best Song award for “Dear Sister”. The song is based on letters written between a brother and sister on the eve of the Civil War battle of Stone River. It fuses the world of the traditional and the original.
Her band is an astounding group in and of themselves. Mandolinist-guitarist Jarrod Walker is a soulful singer and skilled player. Bryan McDowell is a young string wizard who, at 18, had an unprecedented hat-trick at the Winfield, Kansas National Flat-picking Championship winning first place in fiddle, mandolin, and flat-picked guitar. Mark Schatz is a two-time IBMA-winning bassist-clawhammer banjo player-dancer-percussionist. He makes the coffee as well.
Mark Schatz also has a close connection to a member of the Winnipeg band, The Duhks. Some of you may remember Leonard Podolak being here 4 years ago with Dry Bones. One of the highlights of their sets was the hambone solos. Leonard learned to hambone and clog from Mark. Schatz also produced one of the Duhks recordings.
I met Leonard Podolak when he was 10 years old. My band and I arrived in Winnipeg by train early on a cold October morning and cabbed it over to Mitch Podolak’s house. Mitch was the concert promoter for the show we were playing in town that night. He is also the legendary creator of the Winnipeg, Vancouver and Edmonton Folk Festivals.
I knocked on the door. There was the scurry of feet. The door swung open and a cloud of smoke billowed out. Leonard’s ten year old face screamed, ”I’m makin’ pancakes”!!
His level of enthusiasm has never dimmed.
He grew up in a house that was the centre of folk music in Winnipeg. The Podolak place housed anybody who was anybody in folk music. Stan Rogers, Utah Phillips, Odetta, Tom Paxton, Spirit of the West, you name them, they slept in the spare room. Leonard soaked it all up getting lessons and advice from them all. Banjo became his area of expertise, but he also learned how to build and run a band.
The Duhks, Grammy nominees and Juno award winners, play a high energy version of Old Time music. They get their instrumental power from the guitar, banjo and violin. The Duhks added a signature percussionist to give it more drive and then topped it all off with an incredible lead vocalist, Jessee Havey.
Jessee joined the band as a teenager. She received her musical education on the road. Because of the immense touring range of the band—they regularly play in the US, Europe and Australia—Jessee was able to learn from cajun musicians, traditional British singers and jazz greats.
The band has always described itself as polyethnic. It has certainly taken that approach with its material, but the band is diverse as well. Fiddler Anna Lindblad is from Sweden and brings a nordic style to the strings. Less raw, more melodic, but still capable of unstoppable groove. Guitarist/bouzouki player Colin Savoie-Levac is from Quebec where he’s in great demand. He splits his time between the Duhks and filling in when needed for Éric Beaudry in star trad trio De Temps Antan. He also guides his own group, Les Poules à Colin. Drummer/percussionist Kevin Garcia is from Detroit originally but now make Brooklyn his home where he plays with, well, everybody.
The Duhks has been a labour of love for over 14 years. Doc Watson, no less, said, “Oh God, it is so beautiful, some of the finest music I’ve heard in many a day.”
The band has evolved over the years, losing and adding members as bands do. What has never changed is the absolute dedication to producing music that is true, focused and as enthusiastic as a 10 year old making pancakes for the guests.
Claire Lynch and the Duhks are just two of the over 40 acts that will be playing the Summerfolk Music and Crafts festival this year. The festival happens August 20, 21, 22, 23 at Kelso beach in Owen Sound, just like it has for 40 years. You can find information about the festival at www.summerfolk.org
*This article first appeared in the Owen Sound Sun Times on June 19th, 2015