After two sets of understated coffeehouse-caliber strummers, it was a little difficult to keep my head up when Seattle’s The Dutchess and the Duke took the stage. But my attention snapped right back into place upon hearing their powerful opener, “Hands,” which also appears as the first track on their new album “Sunset/Sunrise.”
Knee-to-knee guitarists Jesse Lortz and Kimberly Morrison create stark and deeply felt harmonies, not uncomfortable in the way that you might find barebones-confessional singer/songwriter work, but still disarmingly brazen. Their haunting lyrics address mortality, emotional desolation, ghosts and romantic antipathy — like less-optimistic “Rubber Soul” material that preserves trace elements of baroque-pop, but comes from the darker, Scott Walker-end of the spectrum.
The duo expands on the road to include minimalist percussion from Matt Williams, Melissa Elias on a Hofner violin bass in true McCartney spirit, and Jered Gummere on keys. Everyone lined up downstage in a fanned-out tableau: Morrison and Lortz sat facing each other in the center, Williams and Elias stood on one side, Gummere on the other. The spread mimicked something like a family band of pickers appearing on “The Porter Wagoner Show,” cheesy grins traded for forlorn looks of existential isolation.
Lortz’s ballast vocals verged on a twangy Lou Reed impression, while Morrison wailed heartfully, and at times with such horsepower she tilted her head back from the microphone in a move like a gospel soloist exercising merciful restraint. Lortz did most of the simple, but pop-perfect guitar work. Morrison fumbled the arpeggio beginning of “Never Had a Chance” without much disruptive consequence, and kept apologizing (presumably to Lortz) throughout the song.
When a request to the Maestro (Sticky Fingerz’s sound man) to lower the lights went unanswered, Lortz’s quip “I guess the Maestro must be kickin’ it,” won over laughter. Perhaps a little humor was in order to soften the blow, because the moment was followed by a completely devastating and stripped-down rendition of “I Am just a Ghost” from their first album, which concluded with an impeccably harmonized refrain that made my scalp tingle.
If you find yourself disenchanted with effete, navel-gazing acoustic guitar dudes and endless throngs of Dylan impersonators, the Dutchess and the Duke are a welcome renewal of the genre. With overtly poetic sensibilities artfully framed in folk, their records occasionally sound at times like Wes Anderson set pieces. But their live performance is driving, soulful and impressively potent.