Inside the cozy confines of downtown’s Highlander Pub, surrounded by large corner windows providing a bustling Rideau Street backdrop, two guitarists churn out a well-loved variety of acoustic tunes on a Wednesday night. At the bar, listeners are turned on their stools to face the duo, frequently exchanging in audience-performer banter as the night goes on, adding to the laid-back, welcoming atmosphere.
The man at the helm, singer-songwriter-guitarist Shawn Tavenier, throws out a verbal tip-of-the-hat to Luke the bartender before he begins his next song. His right-hand man of the last five years, PEI native Nick Gauthier, chimes in on vocal harmonies and some beautiful guitar fills to accompany Shawn’s more rhythm-styled playing. The two become embroiled in a swirl of folk, rock, country, and rootsy goodness as they spill seamlessly from a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band favourite into some classic Led Zeppelin.
Apt613 talks to Tavenier about his 16 years (!) at The Highlander Pub, other musical irons in the fire, and life as a full-time musician. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: How long have you been playing guitar, and when did you become a full-time musician?
Sean Tavernier: I got my first guitar when I was 14. And then I wanted to learn as many Elvis Presley and Neil Young songs as I could. I was obsessed with those songs. I worked for a little while before I went to work at a tech firm then to university. I liked it enough because I knew I was only stopping by. But, as a matter of fact, it was when I started playing here at The Highlander, 16 years ago, that I realized I could make money playing music. Sometimes it feels like you don’t have anything cooking, but then you take a step back and realize that when you’re playing gigs five or six nights a week, that’s something cooking.
I’m sure between you and Nick, after all this time, you must have a hell of a repertoire to choose from—but is there a challenge in keeping the show fresh week after week?
This place is at the mouth of The Market with hotels all around, so we’ve met some very interesting people… some regulars and some passing through. We can play almost anything… any genre. Between Nick and I, we’ve got a selection of somewhere around 600 tunes.
We don’t really put on a “show” per se. Nick and I challenge each other. If there’s songs we’re learning or that each of us has written, we can test them out here. I’ll bring in a song, and he’ll just make it better. He’ll try out songs too here and there—he’s one of the best. As comfortable as he is being the side guy, he’s really a dragon slayer [laughs]. He’s the real deal.
Besides your residency here, what other things keep you busy musically?
I deejay at the Clocktower Pub across the street on Wednesdays before coming here. I’ve also been playing every Thursday night at the Elmdale Tavern in Hintonburg for the last one-and-a-half years.
For more than 10 years I’ve been at the Heart & Crown on Clarence Street every second Sunday, alternating with Ben Cooper. Both of those are solo gigs.
For the past 10 years, I’ve been involved with Blues In The Schools through Ottawa Bluesfest. Tyler Kealey and I do that together, where we go to elementary schools and get the kids pumped, get them singing, and try to teach them a little about where the music they like comes from. Absolute gymnasiums full of kids—it’s a huge inspiration for them. I’m also involved in Bluesfest’s, Be In The Band program.
Tell me the difference between playing in your band of 13 years, Silver Creek, versus a weekly bar gig? You sing with such heart and soul, and it sounds like you relish in every moment you’re performing, whomever you happen to be performing with.
Ah—Silver Creek, my old chariot. Yeah, it’s been a long time and there have been many changes during a long timeframe of many peaks and valleys. Silver Creek is the band I’ve always wanted to play in. I like a loud rock ’n’ roll band going full tilt on stage with the front person steering the ship. That’s what I love about music, and about Silver Creek. Being here doesn’t give me quite as much room to stretch my wings as an entertainer, but there are definitely moments.
It’s like a weird little eco-system here—you are as involved with it as you want to be. Sometimes if you take a really active role in a room like this, then you can get a lot more out of it. It’s the kind of job where once you’ve finished, people will talk to you about how much they enjoyed what you did—that’s a definite perk. How many jobs do you know of that do that?
Catch Shawn Tavenier and Nick Gauthier every Wednesday night from 8:30pm until midnight at the Highlander Pub (115 Rideau St.)