Bluegrass night at Barfly, Montreal

Barfly, Montreal logoWhen I lived in Montreal six years ago, bluegrass night had already been a decade-old Sunday night tradition at Barfly. Last weekend I had the chance to visit this favorite haunt of mine after a wretchedly long absence, and was happy to see that this landmark of the Montreal music scene is still going strong and about to celebrate its 15th anniversary on November 11th.

Though a legendary dive, Barfly can be hard to find with its tiny front on St. Laurent boulevard in the heart of Montreal’s trendy Plateau district. Decorated with Montreal Canadiens hockey memorabilia, dents in the walls, and a bust of Elvis, the bar with its cheap beer, excellent live music and free pool draws a crowd of university students, music lovers and whiskey-sodden barflies in varying proportions.

The musicians that show up to play old time country and bluegrass music on Sunday nights are equally varied in age, style, and musical experience. With a typical turnout of about ten, the group usually includes a couple of guitars and banjos, a mandolin and a lap steel guitar, a stand-up bass and a fiddle. The players rotate in fronting the band for three songs, in a lineup randomly generated by chalking their names on a blackboard as each arrives. This spontaneous arrangement results in a new show every week, the style, feel and quality of which often varies immensely depending on who shows up and at what time of night.

A group of musicians on stage at Barfly

A typical bluegrass night lineup with fiddle, mandolins, upright bass, guitar and Dobro

If you think you don’t like country music because you associate it with the mainstream acts in oversized cowboy hats and glittering outfits singing about keying their ex’s car to the overly engineered sound of electric guitars, you are in good company. That’s how most patrons of bluegrass night feel the first time they are reluctantly dragged to Barfly by their enthusiastic friends who have been there before. The raw, acoustic, alive, complex bluegrass sound you will hear there is as far from what you think of as country as you can get. The intricacy of Flatt & Scruggs breakdowns will knock your socks off, the multi-part vocal harmonies of Stanley Brothers‘ gospel songs will give you goose bumps, and the dexterity of the banjo pickers will blow your mind. Inevitably, the extensive oeuvre of Johnny Cash will also be featured.

A mandolin, bass, banjo and guitar players on stage

Left to right: a stunningly talented bluegrass night first-timer Alex on mandolin, with veterans Mark Peetsma on bass, Keith MacLeod on banjo and Matt Large on guitar

The greatest thing about bluegrass night is the self-perpetuating flux of musicians who join the weekly jam sessions and help carry on the tradition over the years. Several of the original founders still show up and play nearly every week, but anyone who wants to play old time country and bluegrass songs is welcome to step up onto the stage, and they do. University freshmen who wander in by chance come back week after week to watch, until one week they come back with a guitar and tentatively play a couple of songs. They are encouraged and coached, and they keep practicing and coming back to play until they themselves become one of the seasoned old-timers. After all, anyone who plays onstage gets to drink free beer all night.

Bluegrass Night is a pay-what-you-want bluegrass and hillbilly music extravaganza happening every Sunday at Barfly in Montreal (4062 St. Laurent) after 10 pm. Tip Kim behind the bar generously and tell her Natalie sent you.


Bluegrass night at Barfly, Montreal — 2 Comments

  1. “Seasoned old-timers.” I’ll let that go or I’ll make myself look old. I hosted Bluegrass Tuesdays at the “Barf” (w/ affection) until X-mas of ’98. I left it to the winds when I left Montreal and these folks kept the spirit and the crowds and moved it to Sundays. It really started in Oct ’94 at Cafe Sarajevo, 2080 Clark St. Rufus Wainwright was a regular and got his first regular gig there from that. After a year the venue changed to my loft at 3625 St. Laurent for 2-and-a-half years. I made homebrew.
    One memorable evening 15 guitar players showed up. Some of us played other instruments but had just brought guitars like when everyone brings a potato salad to a picnic. Sounds like chaos but we sat in a circle and took turns picking a chorus of each tune. Everyone learned something and it was the most sober evening on record.
    Tired of mopping floors and such after the weekly revelry I moved it to Barfly for a few months, tried it at Monkey House on Roi and soon went back to Anthony at the Barfly.
    I remember X-mas Eve of ’98 Anthony closed early and then saw on CFCF-TV that Bluegrass Night at Barfly was a great place to spend X-mas Eve. He took the turkey out of the oven and opened up to a festive crowd.
    I met a young lady in Vancouver, where I live, who told me her husband proposed to her at Barfly Bluegrass Sunday. We shared a can of beer during our brief conversation at a busy downtown intersection. Warmed the cockles of my heart…whatever they are.
    Thanks to the (frag)mentalist (w/ affection) for posting this and congrats and thanks to the “seasoned old-timers” and many talented players and listeners who have turned this into the “fun bonanza” that it seems to have become.

    • Tom – I don’t at all regret taking artistic licence with the phrase “old-timers” if that’s what prompted you to leave such a fantastic comment. Thank you for adding so much history to this story!