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Tuesday, October 22, 2019
Connecting Our Communities

This take on bluegrass is anything but traditional

Toronto-based quintet Union Duke brings an energetic live show to Kitchener’s Registry Theatre on March 2


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A community newspaper journalist for more than two decades, Steve Kannon is the editor of the Observer.

Matt Warry-Smith is on the line from Kansas City. He and his bandmates are there for the Folk Alliance International conference and showcase. They’re a long way from their Toronto home, but that’s nothing new for Union Duke.

That band has made a name for itself based on its very energetic live performances, touring extensively to win new audiences. A schedule that has them heading out north and west, where winter is far from over, sees them closer to home March 2 for a show at Kitchener’s Registry Theatre.

“I consider us more of a live band than a studio band. We play a lot. We tour a lot,” said Warry-Smith.

The band has been touring extensively behind 2016’s Golden Days, its third album, and has been working on a new disc despite the full schedule. New material will be part of the Kitchener show, he notes.

Union Duke’s sound mixes elements of folk, rock and bluegrass (in a newgrass vein) for a sound that’s not conventional.

“We’re definitely far from traditional,” said Warry-Smith of the band’s bluegrass style.

While there’s a heavy bluegrass influence, the sound is based on rock, pop and a variety of backgrounds brought by each of the band’s five members. (Union Duke describes itself as two fifths city, two fifths country and one fifth whiskey.)

Along with Warry-Smith, there’s Ethan Smith, Jim McDonald, Will Staunton and Rob McLaren.

“We basically started with a pop-rock style … melded to a heavy bluegrass influence.”

A Matt Warry-Smith song becomes a Union Duke song after the influences of “five dudes in a band.”

“We can each bring a song to the table, then it gets Union Duked,” he laughs of the band-turned-verb. “That’s how we build our sound.”

Each band member brings something into the mix, including the song-writing process

“I like stories. I like writing songs about feelings, about personal and, at the same time, universal issues,” he said, noting that songs of love and loss resonate with most of us – we all have experiences with such things and can relate, whether in listening to such songs or writing them.

“It seems corny to court heartache so that you can write about it.”

That does, however, fit in with styles of roots music such as folk and bluegrass, which typically tell stories of loss, whether personal or societal.

The stories of Golden Days, for instance, draw on warm personal memories that many of us share: nights by the lake, passing a bottle around the fire, or singing with your friends at the top of your lungs. It also looks forward, reaching for those long, lazy summer days that will keep you going through the winter, with the band calling it “a record of pain and struggle, lessons learned – and of laughter between friends, tenderness between lovers.”

Such stories are part of the enduring appeal of roots music in particular.

“It’s so timeless,” said Warry-Smith.

Marrying those stories to a high-energy live show is Union Duke’s forte. That’ll be on display, along with three-, four- and even five-part harmonies, at the Registry Theatre on March 2 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22, available by calling 519-578-1570, or online at www.registrytheatre.com.

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