For the better part of the last decade, Winnipeg-based five-piece The Duhks enthusiastically combined touches of dozens of different folk forms, from Appalachian string-band strains to the humid rhythms of South America.
For the last several years, though, The Duhks have been in flux, as members have splintered into an array of side projects befitting such an artistically inclusive bunch. The Duhks have toured little and recorded less, using a fluid lineup to preserve their repertoire and spirit without constricting any of the members' schedules.
Founder and bandleader Leonard Podolak actually rejects the notion that a stable configuration is necessary. "We don't have to stick to such rigid rules," he says. "We're all folk musicians; we're all in the family and in the tribe."
In the past year, The Duhks welcomed their original singer and percussionist back to the fold for sporadic performances. As they prepare to play two North Carolina shows this weekend, they'll actually tap the talents of native Tar Heel Kellin Watson. At first glance, Watson's ties to the Canadian band might seem casual enough; the jazzy singer-songwriter from the Asheville area landed a pair of tunes on the popular Canadian TV series Degrassi: The Next Generation several years ago. But her connection runs much deeper.
"When The Duhks first came down to North Carolina, her folks took us under their wing and let us stay there a bunch of times when we had no money," Podolak explains. "In that time, we got to know her and became very good pals, but we also worked on different recordings and projects with her."
When Watson takes the stage as The Duhks' temporary frontwoman, she will attempt to fill the separate shoes of the two lead singers the band has had during its decade-long run. After her 2007 departure, Jessee Havey handed vocal duties over to Sarah Dugas, who added a bit of Portuguese to the band's mix of English and French. She also provided a more aggressive, fiery approach at the stage's apron and recruited her brother Christian Dugas, whose powerful drum kit replaced the Latin hand percussion Scott Senior used to spice The Duhks' early pop-sheened folk.
Original fiddler Tania Elizabeth will also play this pair of Carolina gigs. She left the group in 2010 to work more with the moody roots songwriter Mary Gauthier, replaced on rare Duhks dates by a revolving trio of fiddle all-stars, including newgrass sideman Casey Driessen.
Elizabeth hasn't been the only one to pursue new projects: The Dugas siblings launched a successful roots 'n' soul outfit, while the luthier business of guitarist Jordan McConnell picked up momentum, counting Seth Avett among its customers. Meanwhile, Podolak formed Dry Bones, an unlikely trio with a pair of fellow Winnipeg artists, and a duo with an old-time fiddler. Podolak also headed to the United Kingdom for six shows with the Cecil Sharp Project, a collective commissioned to compose a body of work informed by Sharp's work in Appalachia.
"We had been touring for so long with [The Duhks] that it created a lot of opportunities for us that I don't think we really knew were out there," Podolak reasons. "We're just discovering that."
The members have been so busy that, when The Duhks played a handful of shows last spring and summer, they did so with two different lineups: The Dugas siblings maintained their roles when possible, but Havey and Senior filled in on the remaining dates. While Havey had initially planned to be at these two North Carolina dates, she accepted a gig as musician and puppeteer for a three-month run of a production of The Cat Came Back.
The group considered asking folk stars Abigail Washburn and Ruth Moody, as well as Aoife O'Donovan, the Crooked Still singer who served briefly as The Duhks' frontwoman in 2007. They weren't available, but Watson was. She, Havey and Dugas "all have this soul, pop and folk in their lives," says Podolak. That allows each singer to align with the band's truss of modern influences and traditional folk.
"It was sort of an obvious choice," Podolak says. "Kellin has that raw, funky thing that influences her songwriting, but she's also from western North Carolina and related to Doc Watson, so she has that side as well."
Despite the increasing time constraints imposed by the members' extracurricular undertakings, Podolak points to the past—albums, tours, Grammy and JUNO nods—as reason enough to stick together, in one form or another: "The Duhks are a great thing and we love it. We all invested so much into it for so long, so why kill it if it isn't necessary?"