There’s nothing quite like the flat-out energy of authentic, no-holds-barred, foot-stomping folk/rock. Toronto band Union Duke knows plenty about crafting some of the finest tunes around in that regard, ‘bridging big city rock with bluegrass and country.’
The five-piece group plays The Scott Block Theatre on July 20th at 7 p.m.
Their latest disc, Cash & Carry, was released just last week and they are setting out on a cross-country tour following the CD’s official release at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern this past weekend.
Recorded in a cabin in the Ontario woods, Cash & Carry is 12 songs of ‘love, loss, and a cheap shirt’. There’s a smattering of everything from the driving beat of opening cut Rollin’ on the Blue to the engaging tones of That Old Feeling and A Little More.
Things slow down to a pleasant mid-tempo with tunes like Highway Speed and the compelling Broken In, and grow downright contemplative with Leaving My Girl and Dime Store Shirt. But it’s not long before that unbridled energy kicks back in with Your Old Lover and the rollicking sensibilities of Quit This Town.
Original members, Matt Warry-Smith, Ethan Smith and Jim McDonald were drawn together in their teens, skipping class to play music in an old workshop basement.
It wasn’t long before they were sneaking into bars around the Toronto circuit to play shows at the early age of 13.
The trio picked up Will Staunton and Rob McLaren, natives of Port Hope, Ontario and Red Deer respectively and since then, the band’s dynamic has continued to thrive.
McLaren has been exploring various types of music since he was a kid growing up in Red Deer. “My mom taught piano lessons and my dad played acoustic guitar, and so I grew up taking a bunch of piano lessons, violin and guitar lessons.
“Lindsay Thurber (High School) also had good music and choral programs, so I was very much involved with those as well.
“I’ve had a lot of different experiences and pursued different opportunities with performing – played in some symphonic groups, jazz bands, choirs – all sorts of things. It’s a different experience now,” he adds, pointing out how audiences are a bit more involved in the performance with Union Duke. They aren’t just sitting there taking it in – there’s dancing and it’s just the type of music that it’s pretty hard to sit still through. “You can really draw energy from the people that are there,” he says.
“It’s a lot of fun.”
After graduating, he headed out to Humber College in Toronto to complete his Bachelor of Music degree. McLaren connected with Union Duke through a friend of a friend, as none of the other guys in the band attended Humber.
“They had connections with people who had recommended me when they were looking for a guitar player,” he says. The band had been together for about 10 years prior to that, with Warry-Smith, Smith and McDonald playing together in bands since their middle school years.
“When they added me and Will, about two years ago now, that’s when the sound became a little more solidified to what it is now.” The guys released Bandits & Bridges just last year.
“With Bandits & Bridges, we went and recorded everything ourselves using all of our own equipment at a cottage, and it worked pretty well for us.
“This time, we had basically the same vision but put a little bit more time and effort into it. We spent time in a log cabin owned by a family friend at the end of November, and this time we brought along a friend of ours who is a recording engineer. He did all the recording and mixing for us.”
Songwriting duties are somewhat spread amongst the members of the group, and they all sing as well – some more than others. The talent as reflected through their harmonies and arrangements is another striking feature to how gifted these guys are as well.
With hundreds of shows and festivals under their belts, Union Duke indeed embodies the spirit of the ‘touring band.’ They still drive coast to coast in the van that took the three original members to their first show, over a decade ago.
For McLaren, it’s a great fit.
“We play music that is very influenced by country and bluegrass, and coming from Alberta you would think I would have been raised on those kinds of things,” he adds with a laugh. “But really I didn’t grow up learning that music. I went away to study jazz – I was going to be a jazz guitar player. It was only through Humber and other opportunities that I started to get more interested in country music.
“So by the time I joined Union Duke, I was already playing in some bluegrass bands and getting involved in that scene.”
Meanwhile, performing in his hometown will of course be an added bonus to the tour.
“I’m super excited because my family still lives there and they’re always sending around links and sharing the music. So I know we have a lot of people in Red Deer that enjoy our music, but haven’t had the chance to see us ‘live’. It’s going to be a really fun experience.”
Tickets are available in advance at Sunworks, or at the door.