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A homecoming for McLaren

Go figure: It took moving to Toronto to turn former Red Deer jazz musician Rob McLaren into a folk-country artist.

“Ontario brought out the country in me,” said McLaren, a guitarist with the up-and-coming Toronto-based band Union Duke.

The group that blends big city rock with bluegrass and country is touring for the first time to Alberta’s cowboy country.

Union Duke will perform in McLaren’s hometown for a concert the Scott Block in downtown Red Deer on Sunday, July 20.

And McLaren is “super excited” about this first Western tour — which is long overdue, considering the band has already played in Eastern Canada and throughout Ontario, including at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia.

But crossing four provinces is a long trip for five guys crammed into a van, said McLaren. “We had to put aside two weeks in July, where there were no festivals, to do it.”

The 23-year-old moved east to get a bachelor of music degree from Humber College after graduating from Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School in 2009. And he’s gotten acclimatized to life in the big city.

“It’s a whole different vibe. I spend a lot of time on public transit,” said McLaren, who also finds the Southern Ontario humidity to be draining. “It’s killing me — I much prefer weather in Red Deer, where the summers aren’t so hot and the winters don’t feel as cold.”

Although he misses his family and Red Deer friends, he maintains Toronto is a great place for a musician. “I’m very happy where I am now,” added McLaren. “For the past five years, I’ve made so many friends and connections.”

The other musicians in the band are vocalist/percussionist Matt Warry-Smith, vocalist/guitarist Ethan Smith, banjo player Jim McDonald and bassist/percussionist Will Staunton.

All of them, except for Staunton, grew up together in Toronto. The bassist from Port Hope, Ont., joined the band along with McLaren before the recording of the last album, Bandits & Bridges.

Now the group has put out an energetic, dance-able new release, Cash & Carry, which is described as being more “evolved” and “pop-ier” than the former album. “Bandits & Bridges is more acoustic. This one’s got a slightly more electric sound to it,” said McLaren, who wrote one of the songs on it.

Quit This Town is based on a true story, about his great-grandfather’s farm near Ponoka, which was sold after his death.

“It’s about a pipe dream I had about moving back to Alberta and buying back the farm.”

The musician admitted he would probably find it much altered from his childhood memories, “but I thought it was a good premise for a song.”

A breakup tune from Cash & Carry — A Little More, written by Smith — is already getting some CBC airplay.

McLaren is looking forward to a full summer of performing — particularly a return engagement at the Mariposa Festival, and playing for his Red Deer friends at the Scott Block.

Tickets are $10 for the 7 p.m. show and will be available from Sunworks in Red Deer.

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