Last Night: The Dutchess & the Duke at Bottom of the Hill
The Dutchess & the Duke, Greg Ashley, and El Olio Wolof
Bottom of the Hill
Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009
Better than: Getting drunk at your own campfire singalong.
Seattle duo The Dutchess & the Duke are into the rougher side of campfire songs. Their latest album, Sunset/Sunrise, is a rusty country blues blade aimed at the nerves of terminal loneliness. On record, Jesse Lortz and Kimberly Morrison concentrate on the painful emotional bruises dysfunctional lovers can cause one another, Lortz singing often of being a ghost to a women he once cared for. It's heartbreaking music with a tough punk posture, a rawness to the lyrics complimented by a rawness in the recording. Last night, the band added the rawness of alcohol to the mix, offering a little levity--and plenty of humorous banter--to its material, as the mood shifted from tear-in-my-beer to have-another-round.
The inebriated tone was set by Greg Ashely, the Oakland songwriter/producer who helped The Dutchess and the Duke record their latest album. He took the stage second, and three songs in told the crowd, "I'm really fucked up," his way of apologizing in advance if he happened to screw up a song he'd never played live before. The booze didn't make his playing sloppy as much as it turned his between-song banter into a comedy act, while helping him push the volume levels in his favor.
Ashley is the bandleader for Gris Gris and a solo performer, and in both outlets he makes great fractured psych folk. Last night it was just him and his acoustic and electric guitars on stage. It's a setup that can make regular bar chatter seem overwhelming, as the performer competes with the noise of drunken conversations around him. Ashley put up a good fight, though. "I'm gonna play something so fucking loud loud that I can't hear you fuckers talking over me," he announced gleefully. "I'm gonna making it impossible for anyone to have a fucking conversation."
Ashely was back on stage to play percussion with the Dutchess and the Duke, joined by Gris Gris bandmate Oscar Michel on bass. Morrison walked out in an old cardigan and a ski cap, and she explained to the crowd she was getting over a cold. The sickness didn't stunt her stunning vocals, though, and she backed Lortz with eyes closed and chin tilted skyward, her expressions giving the songs an ache that matched the words.
The rest of the band was Sunday night loose. Ashley complained of needing to leave the stage to take a piss, or he danced behind Michel with a tambourine in his hands. Lortz was in good spirits too, having to hold back laughter during some of Sunset/Sunrise's darkest songs. He chuckled a little during "Let It Die," and sang one of the closing numbers standing up and moving around (he and Morrison performed most of the show seated).
The silliness took some of the edge off The Dutchess and the Duke's songs without damaging the lyrical depth, great harmonies, and delicate simplicity that makes their music so great. Despite Ashley's vocal outbursts, he kept a steady beat, while Lortz and Morrison presented a different sort of catharsis than their songwriting typically brings. They also continued to haunt fans with a performance of their most heartbreaking hit, "I Am Just a Ghost," (off the group's debut album) pulling back from the microphones during the chorus to repeat the title lines a capella.
In the end, The Dutchess and the Duke succeed by never being quite what you'd expect. They're two hard-partying garage punks turned tender balladeers. They'll headline a show only to walk off stage and play in the crowd (as with last year's Rickshaw Stop show). And they'll take a bunch of sad, somber numbers and turn pain into a party, never losing their grip on being able to hit audiences with that rusty blade amongst all those empty bottles.
By the way: The third band on the bill, opening act El Olio Wolof, was a dynamic act. Their music had a woozy momentum as the Merced group changed up the timing and the direction of their songs, making their set a sort of jazz- and gypsy-influenced Grandaddy (with an accordion player). The evokative lyrics--about monsters and dinosaurs and traveling by sea--added to the uniqueness of their sound.