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Bucking the Rules: A night with Dan Dubuque

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Musician Dan Dubuque plays his Weissbenborn slide guitar. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAN DUBUQUE

Montana musician takes the Tips Up stage Feb. 12

By Brian D’Ambrosio EBS CONTRIBUTOR

WHITEFISH – In a world of abundant harmonies, yowling collaboration and a full saturation of lyrics, Dan Dubuque does something simple and audacious: He wordlessly performs a broad appeal of genres on a single instrument.

What could be described as an action-packed wallop of sheer sonic improbability, the energy of Dubuque’s Weissenborn slide guitar heightens the senses with thump, sass and force. 

“It’s super intense (playing the Weissenborn),” said Dubuque, who grew up in Polson and now calls Whitefish home. “I’m kind of hard on it, it’s kind of ridiculous. I’m hitting the metal bar with my left hand, I’m hitting the strings to get that snare sound, and it just digs into the neck, and puts holes in [the guitar] that way.” 

Originally manufactured in Los Angeles sometime around the 1920s by a man named Hermann Weissenborn, the eponymous lap slide guitar is hollow from the neck to the body, ensuring the delivery of an inordinate amount of percussion. 

“I like the dynamics of it,” Dubuque said. “You could play it soft and sweet and soulful. You could play really soulful to really heavy and hard.”

Before he learned how to play a Weissenborn in his 20s, Dubuque, 39, would busk on street corners or in parking lots or at farmers markets, twanging a standard acoustic guitar, with little or no notice or response. 

“Busking on the streets with a regular guitar wasn’t making much tips, but once I started busking with the Weissenborn, people would give me hella’ tips,” Dubuque said. “And then I learned how to play it good. And then it became a job.”

Dubuque’s engaging solo work stands easily on its melodic, muscular strength, instrumental skill and non-conforming charisma, but his strangely brewed set list of rock, pop, 1990s grunge and heavy metal is a revelation. Indeed, the range of Dubuque’s repertoire is incisive, an extremely wide course of study that surprises even him.  

“It’s just crazy all of the styles,” he said. “I do everything from the blues, to country, traditional stuff to electronic music, to hip hop, heavy metal, and everything in between. There are songs that I love, like Tool’s ‘Descending.’ Originally, I thought, man, I wish I could translate this to the slide guitar, and I thought there’s no way in hell I could translate that song to slide. And that’s one of my favorite go-to songs now. I never thought that I’d being playing ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ or ‘Heart-Shaped Box,’ so I am more open minded now when it comes to translating songs.”

In addition to its total lack of limitations, another glaring feature of Dubuque’s music is that it isn’t overrun with production or gimmicks. There is a raw objectivity and toughness to his playing that he carries out with the surety of the guillotine. 

“I think what makes it like magic when I play it’s just there’s not many tricks, and not all of these pedals, not all of this gear, not all this stuff that everyone hides behind, in my opinion,” he said.

Still, despite a robust following on social media sites, Dubuque concedes that it’s often difficult for instrumentalist artists to convert fans to their brand.   

“It would be easier if I sang and strummed some chords, but I’m not singing, I’m doing the bass parts, the percussion and the vocal melodies with the strings,” he said. 

Exhilarating to hear, Dubuque’s music projects a relentlessly physical character to see. 

Dubuque will play at Tips Up on Feb. 11. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAN DUBUQUE

“I had one instrument that I broke the hell out of playing it percussively,” he said. “But the one I have now is all custom made, and it can take a beating now, and I think it’s the first Weissenborn to ever be made to play for percussively, because those things aren’t made to be played the way I play.”

Despite its undeniable presence and its popularity among a devout group of notable players such as Ben Harper and Ronnie Wood, the Weissenborn for the most part eludes mainstream awareness. 

“It turns heads and stops people in their tracks, because there’s just no sound like it,” Dubuque said. “That sound is captivating, and not necessarily because I’m playing. Somebody else, who didn’t know how to play it, would still turn heads.”

While captivation is his aim, resourcefulness is his vessel; Lending each genre a distinct air of passion, he reads the audience with an eagle’s intuition and a wolf’s impulse to determine what comes next.  

“I’m at the point where I could just take a peek up at the audience for one second and see what they want,” Dubuque said. “If it’s a bunch of old timers, I’ll play something like ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ or something to warm them up and make them comfortable. If it’s a bunch of college kids, I’ll play ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ or some techno or electronic stuff. With a bunch of metal heads, it’s Rage Against the Machine, or Tool, or Metallica. If I see a bunch of hippies, I’ll play the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood.’ ‘Paint It Black’ works anywhere.” 

Dubuque sounds as if he is as eager as ever to fight the system, buck the rules, take on the establishment and let the music stand alone. 

“I don’t need a comfort zone,” Dubuque said,  “a spot where only my friends are showing up, always in the same area.”

An ambitious artist outfitted with an ambitious instrument, Dubuque is all about sharing the intoxicating pleasures of the Weissenborn’s sound, color and movement. 

“I’ll play it tired, I’ll play it sick,” he said. “I’ll play where I’m getting booed out. I’ll play in old buildings with shitty acoustics. I’m not picky. I like the challenge. I’ll play in any damn corner of any echo-filled building. I just like to play the best that I can.”

Dan Dubuque will perform at Tips Up on Feb. 12 at 9 p.m.

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