by Joel Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n the first couple measures of the Duhks' new self-titled album, you get a little conga drum with some claves and a rattlesnake shaker that pans from left to right. Hard to tell what they're aiming for. This could open up into a Shakahachi flute solo, or a bluesy slide guitar a la Dire Straits' "Water of Love." Eight seconds in: a wash of acoustic guitar. Sounds New Age-y.
But wait. Sixteen seconds in, you get the beginnings of a sinewy old spiritual in three-part harmony. The other backing instruments give way and now there's a pentatonic line of banjo. Another minute and a fiddle wails. By the three-minute mark, lead singer Jessica Havey is belting it out like Susan Tedeschi, full-throated and gravelly, while that fiddle shrieks and screams.
When the song finally ends, you're left a little dumbstruck, not really sure what you just heard. Something sort of weird, something sort of marvelous.
It's that kind of categorical befuddlement that's making the Winnipeg-based quintet (their name is pronounced "ducks") something of a cynosure lately. Roots-music radio programs love them. Critics are talking about them and Nickel Creek and Bela Fleck in the same breath (of course, they're right to mention the latter -- he produced the latest record and makes a few cameos). Fans go nuts at their shows, dancing and pounding on the front of the stage.
The group's been delighting and confusing audiences since the late '90s, when banjo player Leonard Podolak fell out of a Celtic band and gathered a few friends to make something new. He recruited fiddler Tania Elizabeth from British Columbia and got guitar player Jordan McConnell and singer Havey locally in Winnipeg -- where, McConnell says, to avoid getting their faces frozen off during winter, musicians just hole up inside for six cold months and emerge in the spring "twice as good as they were last time you saw them." The group went into the studio and emerged with Your Daughters and Your Sons, an album heavy on Irish, English, Scottish and French-Canadian tunes that sounds like the product of several long winters' worth of practice.
When they hired percussionist Scott Senior to bring his talents to the table, though, that's when their music's borders started to bleed away. Senior brought his experience playing congas in a jazz/funk/hip-hop band. Havey unleashed her inner diva. McConnell, a longtime punk and rock fan who cites Propaghandi and the Weakerthans as two of his favorite bands, started to dish it out. "It all just started to get thrown in more and more," McConnell says -- reggae, soul, beat-boxing, old-timey music, reels, jigs, whatever.
The result of this laissez-fare collaboration turned heads. Sugarhill, the label that puts out Nickel Creek's music, had been set to release the Duhks' first, self-produced album but, according to McConnell, when the band brought this new stuff to L.A. to play for some record executives, Kevin Welk, the GM of Welk Music, "came out of his office, went 'Holy shit!,' called Bev from Sugarhill and said, 'We gotta rethink this old record -- they're doing stuff that's way beyond that now.'"
Of course, that kind of stuff might be anathema to the kinds of roots music purists who scold Nickel Creek for going poppy and the Avett Brothers for turning bluegrass into rock shows. But the Duhks seem unconcerned. They just put the wraps on another album (this one produced by bluegrass legend Tim O'Brien), and they're content to let audiences make their own judgments of their music.
"If people come to hear us, they'll know," says McConnell.
Know what to call it? Know who it sounds like?
Probably not. But they know they like it.
The Duhks at the Big Easy on Thursday, June 29, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $19.50. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.