Born to fun

In my most earnest National Enquirer mode, I try to get cheerful Canadian band The Duhks to say something nasty about authority, music teachers, life in general or another Duhk in particular.

Alas, the luck of the Irish isn’t with me. Because everyone in this young, technically adept Celt-folk quintet loves, well, everything.

They’re no less than rhapsodic about their own music — a mix of old-time Appalachian/Celtic accented with lilts of Quebecois and Afro-Cuban styles, and stamped with soaring harmonies and an unfailingly jolly spirit.

They’re also completely enamored of one another — “genius,” “brilliant” and “amazing” were among the accolades shouted out during my recent, en masse phone interview with the band.

And they “love, love, love” Asheville, where they promise “magical, musical bliss” tonight when they headline Jack of the Wood.

Oh, and these cheery 20-somethings even enthusiastically love their parents. Well, why not? Most band members were raised in musical homes — a payoff splendidly realized on their just-released first CD Your Daughters and Your Sons.

Having influential roots-music label Sugar Hill Records put out your debut is hardly a shabby start for an 18-month-old group based way up north in Winnipeg, a city on the plains of Manitoba that boasts “the windiest downtown corner on the continent.”

These days, though, The Duhks are on the road most of the time, crisscrossing Canada and the U.S. in their dilapidated brown van — one-night stands here, festival stints there, a moment stolen now and then to work out a new song. During our long-distance breakfast interview, they pass their single cell phone around like a microphone.

“The band has never been tighter,” enthuses percussionist Scott Senior, still stoked from The Duhks’ recent weekend at Festival du Bois in British Columbia.

“Morale,” he reports, “is really high, our songwriting is mature, and we’re ready for the rest of our lifetime of playing. Pass the salt, please.”

Band founder Leonard Podolak — “the most crazy genius banjo player,” according to Duhks fiddler Tania Elizabeth — is already a veteran of the Celt-folk scene. (The Duhks take their oddly appealing name from that of his former band, Scruej MacDuhk.) And even though he grew up among giants (parents Mitch and Ava Podolak founded the 31-year-old Winnipeg Folk Festival), he didn’t find his own “folkiness” till he was 16, after having forsaken Mom’s choice of the piano for Dad’s banjo.

Yet within three years, the exuberant Podolak was mesmerizing audiences with his hybrid of maniacal picking and mellow vocals.

Meanwhile, guitarist Jordan McConnell admits he’s “the quiet, behind-the-scenes guy.” (“He’s stable rhythmically and personally,” explains Elizabeth.) Still, as a 5-year-old, he loudly rejected his own mother’s push toward the piano, reportedly claiming that the instrument was “for girls” and clamoring instead for a guitar.

“I found my way to Irish music [eventually],” says McConnell, who’s since broadened his repertoire with tenor banjo, Uillean pipes and pennywhistle.

Next up? “We’re thinking about the sitar,” he jokes.

Senior is the only Duhk who hails from a nonmusical family — but, like most of his band-mates, the percussionist has already stormed through a variety of genres (jazz, Cuban, etc.). According to Elizabeth, such varied backgrounds have resulted in “weird musical combinations” that “take us to a whole new level.”

Jessica “Asheville Is Tattoo Heaven” Havey, of the soulful voice and exotic looks, is considered by all Duhks to be their most-hip member.

“I’m fabulous,” the vocalist quips, “and I don’t like to talk about anybody but myself.”

But it may be Elizabeth who best embodies The Duhks’ rousing spirit, both in her talent and buoyant joie de vivre.

Two years ago, she was attending the esteemed Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp near Nashville — as a teacher. She was only 17.

“All the teachers there are the creme de la creme,” she says, “and O’Connor chose me. I was so flattered.”

Her fellow Duhks describe her banshee bowing style as “burnin'” — and the fiddler is both young enough to agree and talented enough to divert the praise.

“I’m burnin’,” she amends, “about life.”

[Freelance writer Marcianne Miller is a frequent contributor to Xpress.]

The Duhks buoy up Jack of the Wood (95 Patton Ave.; 252-5445) on Wednesday, March 17. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.; cover is $10. A crowd is expected for St. Patrick’s Day; come early to enjoy the special menu.

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