Friday, September 12, 2008

Concert Review: The Dutchess & The Duke

Originally written for and published on

The Dutchess & The Duke – Schubas, 9/10/08
Folk Royalty Prove Benevolent

The Dutchess and the Duke certainly hold no pretenses about mingling with the peasant folk. With close to half of the audience seated on the floor around them, Dutchess (Kimberly Morrison) and Duke (Jesse Lortz) eluded the spotlight of the stage and instead chose to meander – unplugged – around the limbs and pint glasses of their guests under dim house-lights. Joined by a percussionist utilizing an upside-down plastic trashcan (with trashbag still lining the insides), an emptied cardboard box, tambourine, and bells wrapped around one ankle, this was truly a unique performance that carried with it some subtle, unexplained weight that what we were witnessing was important.

Though they’d worked on other projects in separate bands previously, Lortz and Morrison released their debut album together as The Dutchess and The Duke (She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke) on Hardly Art just two short months ago. Already the Seattle-based duo have rightly earned their share of blogosphere buzz, aided in part by opening several shows this summer for Internet darlings (and fellow Seattleites), Fleet Foxes. She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke is a brief but potent 31 minutes of vintage bluesy-folk – or maybe folksy-blues – recalling Leonard Cohen, The Animals or early Rolling Stones. In fact, Lortz’s vocals when heightened in pitch on “Strangers” are strikingly similar to a young Mic Jagger.

Though the album is electric folk at its modern best, the acoustic set at Schubas seemed appropriate nevertheless. Lyrically, the majority of tracks are heart-wrenching ballads of loves lost, loneliness and despair, pulled back from the brink by the company of Morrison’s harmonizing. The warm setting provided by a venue like Schubas is rather ideal, then, and the band seemed loose and spontaneous. Several of the tracks could have benefited from amplification, and it would be interesting to witness a rock ‘n’ roll version of the performance, but overall the intentions of this pared-down style were made clear in shear intimacy.

Halfway through the set they hit their stride performing back-to-back “Mary” and “Reservoir Park”, the tracks from the original EP that made people take notice in the first place. The real highlight came towards the end, though, with “I Am Just a Ghost”. Unfettered by the shackles of electronic chords and cables and microphone levels, the Duke set his vocal talents free, belting out the pleas and apologies of sincere experience.

What was strange throughout the night, however, was the between-song banter between bandmates. As raw as their art itself, discussions covered belching, farting, puking, and animals at the Lincoln Park Zoo. The strict contrast between this repartee and the sad beauty of each song was a jolting contradiction, suggesting perhaps a discomfort with their own talent. Or maybe the contraposition was intentional to keep the mood light and airy; supposing the conversations were as heavy as the songs themselves the gravity of the evening would have certainly been much more to bear.

What remained, though, was a solid performance from a pair of up-and-coming artists with immense talent. Even unplugged The Dutchess and The Duke have tapped into that current of electricity that once made rock music a life-changing experience. Hopefully they can keep it flowing.

“Back to Me”
“Out of Time”
“Ship Made of Stone”
“Reservoir Park”
“The Prisoner”
“You Can Tell the Truth, Now”
“I Am Just a Ghost”
“Armageddon Song”
Listen: "I Am Just a Ghost"

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