James Jackson Toth / The Dutchess and the Duke
Gravity Lounge; Charlottesville, VA

“Everybody squint your eyes a little bit, so it looks like it’s darker in here,” said The Duke, also known as Jesse Lortz. He and The Dutchess (nee Kimberly Morrison), joined by a percussion player, were perched on the edge of the stage, forgoing the PA and strumming and singing straight at the seated audience. The duo’s debut album, She’s The Dutchess, He’s The Duke, takes up a folkish minimalism, and their live show follows that same path. Their proximity to the crowd was one example, as was their simple, unplugged orchestration and precise delivery.

Such a basic approach might come off as sterile or lacking talent, if not for the energy at the root of The Dutchess and The Duke’s sound. On the album, the source of this essence is hard to pin down, but in a live setting, it’s literally right in front of you. They behave like good friends: slightly drunk, slightly unruly, but completely endearing and disarming.

In between songs, The Duke disclosed his newfound fascination with port wine while sipping on a glass, then polled the front row about their astrological signs. The Dutchess, meanwhile, apologized for singing with her eyes closed, joking that it made it easier to imagine that no one was watching. But even with eyes squinted or closed, you can’t miss the spark between them. Performing much of the material from their debut, they showed that the raw, straight-ahead path of their album is their natural musical cadence. And the jovial nature of their stage banter is the same spirit that brings their rhythms and melodies to life.

Standing up to put their guitars away at the end of their set, the duo displayed their friendliness one more time. A fan in the front row asked if they could play “I Am Just A Ghost.” The duo shrugged and smiled, returned to their seats, and delivered the tune, forgoing the typical leave-and-return encore formalities and making their last number a personal, special farewell.

Since The Dutchess and The Duke went PA-free, James Jackson Toth and his band, The Born Bads, took the stage after only a short break, and while The Dutchess and The Duke made their impact with stripped down directness, Toth’s five-piece ensemble pulled out the stops and rocked with a full and focused force.

Jexie, James’ wife, contributed backing vocals, and the rest of the band proved that a stellar recording lineup (including guitar-god Nels Cline and Deerhoof’s John Dietrich) isn’t the only thing that Toth’s latest incarnation has going for it. Abandoning the more shaggy, meandering aspects of a lot of Wooden Wand material, Toth’s latest material is well-groomed and drives forward with a determined momentum.

While the band impressively channeled the album’s energy on Waiting in Vain-tunes like “Look in on Me” and “Poison Oak,” “Mother Midnight,” from Wooden Wand and the Sky High Band’s 2006 album Second Attention, burst out towards the end of the set as the night’s highlight. The Born Bads’ rendition showed that the amped-up, reined-in sound not only works for the new songs, but can also inject new blood into Toth’s back catalogue.

Standing on stage and rocking out, Toth looked confident and comfortable. His latest musical steps may be venturing away from some of the more experimental back roads that he has embraced in the past, but it looks like he’s got his compass aligned just as he wants, and the open highway lies ahead.

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