Bards of the Bar: Band's alter ego brings it closer to its roots, audience

Published on Wed, Mar 12, 2014 by Nathan Dalla Santa

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Energy was high as Birch Bay resident Nolan Murray and award-winning Canadian songsmith Bruce Coughlan belted their Irish pride at the Will’O Pub’s pre-St. Patrick’s Day concert Sunday night. They were accompanied by bassist Lonnie Knechtel, son of Larry Knechtel, who played with famed groups like The Doors and Chet Baker.

Veteran performers for more than four decades, Coughlan and Murray gained respect from fans and musicians alike with their
 band Tiller’s Folly. Their eclectic blend of folk, Americana and classic rock serve as a vehicle for Coughlan’s lyrics, which are a loving tribute to everything from the history of the Pacific Northwest to barroom drinking and even the fight against bullying. The group has become successful, performing their historical music at more than 1,500 schools in Canada and headlining festivals across the globe.

It’s a sweet gig, but playing in a successful band has its limitations. When Tiller’s Folly plays, they have to pay their dues to the management, and the costs make their music inaccessible to many smaller venues. However, the two musicians have an insatiable desire to perform and, when they feel like playing for a smaller venue, they shed their Tiller’s Folly mantle and become the bar-crawling bards of the Whisky Minstrels, a blend of guitar, bass and, well, whatever other stringed instrument Murray can get his hands on, it seems.

“Tiller’s Folly doesn’t play bars,” Murray explained. “It’s expensive for them to get a band like that, but we still need to play and keep up our chops, and the Whisky Minstrels allows us to do that.”

In honor of Paddy’s Day, the songs Sunday night were primarily Irish tunes, though they were interspersed with the occasional Rod Stewart, U2 or Proclaimers cover. The overall vibe of the performance could be summed up with Coughlan’s preface to one of his Irish tributes:

“People always say that Irish songs are all about sad love and happy wars,” Coughlan said. “We’re here to disprove that rumor with this next song, which is about happy love.”

Although their music is difficult to pigeonhole, the common thread among their expansive set list is an unbridled joy for the music. Even the sad songs manage to come out ecstatic when the Minstrels cut loose on them, and they’re intermingled with stories and jokes. Sunday night, that personal style created a relaxed atmosphere and a rapt audience as the band played for over two hours.

For Coughlan, playing smaller venues with the Whisky Minstrels fights against what he sees as the downfall of the contemporary concert scene. He fondly remembers playing music in the ’80s, when the music scene, and society in general, was more personal. Back then, Coughlan said, people left concerts feeling like they had been a part of something larger.

“For thousands of years, we gathered around campfires to share music,” Coughlan said. “Then, in 10 years, they discounted that history and plastered big TVs on their walls. Now, people sit in a club and text the person right across the table from them.”

Coughlan said he fears music is increasingly becoming the background noise to a fractured society, serving as a wedge to drive people apart rather than bring them together. That is why the Minstrels relish the opportunity to play in local venues like the Will’O Pub.

In addition to barroom playing, the Minstrels often perform at house shows, where someone offers their house for a private concert and attendees bring food and a donation. It’s an intimate setting with only acoustic instruments, and for those lucky enough to see the Minstrels at a house show, they’ll see it’s where they truly shine.

“When we play those house shows, that’s as real as it gets,” Murray says. “When you’re not up on stage and there are no cords or microphones and the audience is looking you right in the eyes, it’s organic and that’s how music is supposed to be played.”

Sunday, they were the Whisky Minstrels, playing Irish music and fighting the good fight to revive the roots of community music for a small barroom. Next time, they might be Tiller’s Folly, playing rocking Americana for a festival of thousands. There’s no pinning these guys down. The only real certainty is that, although it’s not the same as sharing music around a fire, those who see Coughlan and Murray play leave feeling like they were part of something larger.

For upcoming opportunities to see Murray and Coughlan in action, check out their website at