As far as Scottish-born musician Tony McManus is concerned, moving to Canada has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, with one small exception. Back in the U.K., he was considered one of the top performers in the Celtic-roots idiom; in his new country, he has to content himself with being the second-best-known guitarist on his block.
Of course, when that block is located in the bucolic artists' community of Elora, Ontario, and your neighbour is Norah Jones/k.d. lang sideman Kevin Breit, that's a slight you willingly accept.
"I live directly across the street from Kevin, and it's fantastic," McManus says, laughing. "He has three kids and we have a little guy who's two years old, and they all play together. I just think it's going to be really funny when my guy gets a bit older and realizes that not everyone's daddy is a guitar player."
So far, McManus reports, he's only had one chance to sit down and play with the busy Breit. But he's not lacking for Canadian contacts: when the Georgia Straight catches up with him, he's quaffing coffee in Regina the morning after the on-stage debut of Strung, his new trio with Ottawa Valley fiddler April Verch and Vancouver Island Dobro master Doug Cox.
"It was great," he reports. "We were ensconced in a hotel for a couple of days, just swapping tunes and getting a feel for each other's music, so it was brilliant to actually get up and play in front of a room full of people."
Two days doesn't seem like a lot of prep time for a brand-new band, but Strung's three acoustic virtuosos aren't too pure to take advantage of digital technology. Before convening on the Prairies, they enjoyed some virtual rehearsal time by way of the Internet–a good thing, according to McManus, because Strung is stretching its members' capabilities to the utmost.
"We've each thrown three or four tunes of our own into the ring, and then we've found a couple of bits of common ground," he explains. "But this is the first time in my life I've ever played anything remotely Hawaiian, which was one of Doug's contributions. And for our second number we're playing this slow, melancholy tune from Greece that uses a completely bizarre scale, and we're improvising on it as well, so everyone's getting a workout."
For McManus, playing with Verch is a particular pleasure. "She's very young, she's very energetic, and she's really focused on what she does," he notes, adding that he's starting to realize there's more to Canadian fiddling than the ancient Scottish strains of Cape Breton. In turn, he's been able to introduce the blues- and bluegrass-rooted Cox to some Irish hornpipes–including one written by that rarest of creatures, an Irish Dobro player.
"I normally play the melody on that," he says of Frankie Lane's "An Droichead Beag". "But Doug plays it so beautifully I just sit back. And that's a nice aspect of this band, too: you're hearing these tunes afresh, even though you've been playing some of them for years. We're all having to adapt our own techniques to try and fit in with other people's music in an appropriate way, and so far it's been great fun."
Strung plays St. James Community Hall on Saturday (November 10).