Barfly’s bluegrass night turns 15

To mark a milestone for Barfly’s Sunday-night old-time jam, we spoke to one of Montreal’s key roots-music players and promoters Matt Large, organizer of ye olde bluegrass hoedown, about the event and the appeal of wood and wires in the 21st century.

Bluegrass Sundays, the early years

For some good old-fashioned bluegrass music, you can head for Appalachia, or you can head to Duluth and St-Laurent.

For the past 15 years, Montreal’s banjo-picking elite have travelled to the Plateau and Mile End for a chance to listen to and play in a bonafide bluegrass band — for the first three years, to the now-defunct Café Sarajevo, but for the past 12, to one of Montreal’s best holes-in-the-wall, Barfly.

Run by Montreal’s bluegrass ambassadors Matt Large and Mark Peetsma, every Sunday night at Barfly is an opportunity to hear the banjo, mandolin, upright bass, acoustic guitar, fiddle, dobro and some sorrow-filled singing, and usually nothing else (except maybe the occasional harmonica or accordion, because hey, “if it’s good enough for the Grand Ole Opry, it’s good enough for my Barfly stage,” Large says).

That means no drums. No electric guitars. No shakers. No brass. And no fucking djembes. But snacks, maybe.

This weekend’s 15th anniversary celebration will bring together the city’s best bluegrass musicians signing up for songs on the chalkboard at what’s sure to be a rollicking and drunken good time.

“Fifteen years of every Sunday night for a weekly gig is a huge, huge thing, and we’re pretty proud of the place it’s held — in our dirty little bar in Montreal,” Large says.

The bluegrass- and country-loving crowd in Montreal has evolved a lot over the past decade to include a lot of young people, something Large attributes to a growing appreciation for music made with wood and wires.

“I really think that as music gets more mechanized, electronified… there’s always a response,” he says.

Latter-day jam
If the audiences at Barfly and the Wheel Club’s Hillbilly night are any indication, there’s definitely a demand for heartfelt, heartbroken lyrics and rhythms set by a standup bass and the mournful whine of a fiddle or slide guitar. (Either that, or people really, really loved O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

Typically musicians bring their own instruments to the bar and sign up for three (non-original composition) songs; in anticipation of a lot more people clamouring for a spot on the tiny stage, this Sunday’s maximum is two. Large expects there will be no repeats from the time the band gets going at 9 p.m. till everyone rolls out ‘round 2:30 in the morning.

Songs by Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, are always a favourite, but you definitely won’t catch Large singing Monroe’s “The Walls of Time.”

“That’s my Master’s thesis song. I’ll sing it here [at home] by myself, but that’s a big boy’s song. Maybe one day I’ll get to where I can play it properly,” he says. “It’s one of the heaviest, most important songs in bluegrass, for sure.” Still, not much else is off-limits at bluegrass night — just the regular rules of not performing original compositions and, as Large says, “not being a dick.” The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan aren’t welcome either, but people with different skill levels wanting to play genuine bluegrass definitely are, as are newbs to the genre who just want to get some beers and waltz.

Personally, Large is missing his old singing partner who’s moved away, but he’s happy to celebrate 15 years of bluegrass at the Barfly with just about anyone who’s willing to come down.

“There’s a bit of lament for people who aren’t there, but I get a kick out of the place being packed, with people dancing…” he says. “It’s a constant highlight and a rush to turn people on to this music.”

Plus, there’ll be cake. ■

Bluegrass night celebrates 15 years at Barfly (4062 St-Laurent) on Sunday, Nov. 11, 9 p.m., free

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