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Dare Dukes: Accessible complexities
How Savannah's reigning singer/songwriter got re-aquainted with his muse
Dare Dukes and fan - photo by Bill DeYoung

Even though he was an established singer, songwriter and guitar player in Minneapolis, Dare Dukes put his musical muse on a back burner when he moved to New York City to work as a fundraiser for after–school arts programs.

During his tenure in the Big Apple, he wrote a novel.

“I wrote one and it didn’t get published – 28 rejections – and then I started working on another one,” Dukes shrugs. “I guess I am still technically working on that one, although I haven’t touched it in two and a half years.”

What changed? “When the first novel didn’t get published, I had a bad period where I was kind of wallowing around, depressed, and I started spending a lot of time writing songs,” Dukes says. “In fact, songs started to pop out of me. I had a ton of fragments, but I wasn’t writing songs very seriously while I was working on that novel.

“I made a decision to start taking my music more seriously again – basically to give myself a break from the novel. I knew professional musicians in New York, and they liked my stuff, so I started playing out with them. And one thing led to another.”

In the middle of this creative renaissance, Dukes’ wife, anthropologist Susan Falls, accepted a teaching gig with SCAD. They moved to Savannah in the fall of 2007.

Dukes is a rare bird among singer/songwriters – his lyrics are both introspective and universal, his melodies quirky but sweet, and since his arrival in the Hostess City he’s become one of our most consistently engaging live performers.

Dukes and his semi–permanent backup band, the Blackstock Collection, perform Saturday at the Sentient Bean.

He named the band – which includes a revolving cast of musician characters – after a book of prints by Seattle–based outsider artist Gregory Blackstock.

Blackstock’s work, like that of Dukes himself, is deceptively simple and encompasses an eclectic range of moods and colors.

The Blackstock Collection (the band) includes banjo, mandolin, standup bass and accordion, interweaving with, and supporting, Dukes’ acoustic guitar and high, plaintive singing voice.

“I’ve always felt way more comfortable in my head voice,” Dukes explains. “When I sing in my chest voice I tend to go flat more easily – it doesn’t feel as strong to me. And when I sing in my head voice, it always sounds bright and clear and strong to me. So I tend to write songs that are in that range.”

He’s been compared to pop minimalist Sufjan Stevens, but he dismisses the comparisons. “The weird thing is, I certainly respect his music, but every time I hear it I can’t quite get hooked by it,” Dukes says. “But I definitely am a fan of that kind of instrumentation.”

Indeed, his first major influence was Neil Young, whose austere lyricism and loopy, hypnotic melodic sense made a strong impression on him as a youngster just falling in love with acoustic guitar.

“When I was in my band in Minneapolis, I was really trying to write power pop songs,” Dukes says. “I love the Pixies and Fugazi, and I had to work hard to write songs that were not derivative of the Pixies.

“I’m very interested in writing pop songs. I wrote a literary novel, I can do that – and I’ll hopefully do it again some day – but I also love really accessible music. On the other hand I want it to be sort of intelligent and surprising and all that stuff.

“The artists that I like tend to do that. Their music is accessible but also complex. Neil Young is like that. The Pixies are like that. I love Tom Waits, whose stuff is like that.”

His debut CD, Prettiest Transmitter of All, is packed with adventuresome pop songs, many of them leading to uncharted areas both pointedly cerebral and charmingly unexpected. He’s just started working on his second album.

Dukes says he’s learned to let the muse take him by the hand. “Early on when I was writing music, I tried to follow my plans,” he explains. “I wanted songs to sound a certain way. But little accidents happen, and now I try to follow those and see where they take me.

“I want to write love songs; I think it’s really hard to write the perfect love song. But I also want to write songs that are about weird things that don’t normally make it into the pop genre.”

Dare Dukes & the Blackstock Collection

Where: Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave.

When: At 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16

Admission: $6


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