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Sisters of Murphy celebrates 20 years of Irish rock this St. Patrick’s Day 

click to enlarge Sisters of Murphy is (left to right) Jona Chartrand, Haley Moore, Mark Tichenor, Rick Elmer, Cedric Young, Scott Austin, and Bruce Lish.

PHOTO BY STEPHEN REARDON

Sisters of Murphy is (left to right) Jona Chartrand, Haley Moore, Mark Tichenor, Rick Elmer, Cedric Young, Scott Austin, and Bruce Lish.

Rochester Irish rock band Sisters of Murphy played its first gig 20 years ago on the day of that year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. The show, at the now-defunct Bar Fly, was meant to be a one-off party and featured three current members — singer Mark Tichenor, bassist Bruce Lish, and drummer Rick Elmer — along with The Isotopes’ guitarist Karl Heberger.

“That gig was like the musical equivalent of a ‘Kiss me, I’m Irish’ t-shirt,” Tichenor recalls. “It really was. We didn’t know anything. But it served as the gateway for most of us into a very rich musical heritage — one that I love to this day — that you can't get deep enough into.”

But the first crowd’s response was overwhelmingly positive, and Sisters of Murphy has come a long way from that initial iteration — what Tichenor describes as a “very culturally insensitive version of what we thought an Irish band would be, completely devoid of any knowledge or tradition.”

This week, Sisters of Murphy plays a full slate of shows in keeping with the St. Patrick’s Day festivities, including:

  • March 11, 8 p.m., at Three Heads Brewing, 186 Atlantic Ave.
  • March 12, 7 p.m., at Flour City Station, 170 East Ave.
  • March 17, 7 p.m., at Shamrock Jack’s Irish Pub, 4554 Culver Road, Irondequoit

The band’s early repertoire included a hodge-podge of originals, covers by popular Celtic punk bands Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, and Irish ballads. But through two EPs and a full-length album, as well as numerous lineup changes, the group’s music has become better connected to traditional Irish music.

Part of the evolution in style came from Tichenor’s desire to break free from the conventional role of a frontman and to do more than sing.

“I really unwisely chose the concertina as my instrument, because I thought, hey, that little pirate accordion thing looks easy,” Tichenor says. “Well it’s not easy, and it’s expensive.”

To learn the concertina, Tichenor started to play jigs and reels with fellow band member Cedric Young, who was well-versed in multiple instruments, including whistles, flutes, mandolin, and banjo. Early on, Sisters of Murphy had worked with several classically trained Eastman School of Music violinists, but eventually began to collaborate with more fiddlers experienced in traditional Irish music.

Among them was fiddler Haley Moore, who returned last August after a hiatus from the group. “We get to go in a direction that’s more melodically adventurous,” Tichenor says of Moore’s contribution.

“It was an evolution that was out of necessity,” says Bruce Lish. “We wanted to keep our cred. We had to keep getting better and injecting more real musical thought into the process.”

The result is music that evokes the vibe and camaraderie of an Irish pub and recontextualizes it in a rock band setting, a stylistic confluence best exemplified by the steady acoustic work of guitarist Scott Austin (who co-produces CITY’s monthly crossword puzzles) and electric guitarist Jona Chartrand’s punk sensibility. Lyrically, the songs have a focus that’s universal and not always specific to Irish culture, but musical signifiers such as the instrumentation and the influence of jigs and reels keep the tunes tied to that tradition.

Despite Sisters of Murphy’s love for Celtic music, none of its members have Irish heritage. Because of this, Tichenor says it’s important to stay away from inauthenticity, and that he doesn’t want the band to be a stereotype of Irish culture. The goal is to “ride next to the Irish culture instead of trying to represent it,” he says.


But as a group that functions largely as a party band, especially around St. Patrick’s Day, it can be tricky to avoid crossing a line. And because relationship woes and drinking are fairly universal experiences regardless of culture, Sisters of Murphy’s music inevitably flirts with stereotyping, but without falling into parody.

“Katey Dear,” a fan favorite that first appeared on the 2012 EP “Holy Show,” is a prime example. A rousing song complete with fiddle, banjo, and a punk-rock backbeat is belied by sobering lyrics about a man whose failing marriage causes him to drink more: “Hey, hey, Katey Dear, if you sit down beside me I’ll set down my beer/ Hey, hey, Katey Dear, let me make something perfectly clear: It’s you or it’s the beer.”

Infectious and danceable, it’s easy to see its appeal as a drinking song.

“Any song can be a drinking song if you do it right,” Tichenor says. “What really helps is that you gotta have an easy-to-sing-along chorus that everybody can sing together, and it has to be simple and memorable and upbeat. And it helps if you can sing it with a glass in your hand.”

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY's arts editor. He can be reached at dkusher@rochester-citynews.com.
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