Music is in Chris Toolan’s DNA.
The veteran Outer Banks musician started playing piano when he was 4, guitar at 8 and picked up saxophone when he was in middle school.
He likes the guitar because of its mobility —“being able to take it with me anywhere to practice privately or share a new tune with friends,” he says. But he adds that he considers his voice “my strongest instrument.”
He learned about the transformational power of song from his father, Frank Toolan, whose vocal acumen inspired his young son to express himself through music.
“My father has a wonderful voice and shared with me his joy of singing. I could never do it like him, but he shared the love,” he says. “My mother gave me opportunity and encouragement, my older brother Fran, gave me my first guitar and taught me the basic chords, and I was off. My sister, Mary Beth, has a heavenly voice, which showed me you do not get to be good without training and a lot of practice. My youngest brother, Matt, gave me my first audience.”
He started his life as a musician while attending the University of Richmond, performing as a solo act in intimate coffee house settings surrounded by friends and acquaintances. The low-key gigs built his confidence as a performer, he added some musical partners, and when word spread about his mellow sound, the audience grew beyond his inner circle.
“I had a decent combination of attributes that allowed me to become successful as a player. I had some musical talent, yes, but more importantly I knew how to surround myself with even more talented people.”
He cultivated his marketing skills, built relationships with bar and restaurant owners and stepped up his showmanship.
“I learned to feed off the energy of people listening...and to give that energy back to them in the form of creative music. Then, of course there is always a good chance that some magic will happen,” he says. “That is the best part.”
It wasn’t until 1987, when Toolan started booking regularly on the clubs and bars circuit, that he felt he’d earned the right to call himself “a professional musician.”
“You have to earn that badge. You don’t become professional on your first paying outing,” says Toolan, who has a standing gig performing Wednesdays through September as vocalist-guitarist with the band Low Pressure at Mimi’s Tiki Hut in Manteo.
Three decades and counting
Longtime visitors to the area may remember Toolan from his early days on the sandbar. He first performed on the Outer Banks in the summer of ’85 at Gandalf’s on the Beach Road (now Tortugas Lie) and Updrafts. From 1989-’94, Toolan was on the deck at Station Six (now the Black Pelican), located across from the beach at Mile Post 4 in Kitty Hawk.
Change is a constant thing on the Outer Banks. The sand, the tides, the dunes, the weather, the faces…and Toolan has watched it unfold over the decades with a song in his heart — more fans, and another gig on the books.
His Low Pressure band mates are Maslin Seal on vocals and keyboardist — and more — Ray Evans. But in the band’s early days, Toolan was on stage with Dale Henderson and Andy Torrington.
“Low Pressure started out with Dale Henderson on lead guitar for 25 years and later added Andy Torrington on mandolin. Times and circumstances change, but those two musicians will be forever present as a major influence into our music and spirit,” Toolan says, adding. “If you get a chance to see them play with us or out anywhere performing, do not miss it.”
Like the weather on the Outer Banks, Toolan says Low Pressure is prone to change on any given day.
“Maslin Seal, my partner, has been a godsend as harmonizer-in-chief. One of the fatal flaws of anyone singing solo is that people grow tired of your voice. Maslin makes my voice dynamic,” he says. “Ray Evans has played on the Outer Banks longer than I have and is a rock. He is obsessed with sound and technology, and it really takes the quality to another level. … Ray plays the keyboard proficiently; expanding our repertoire…he plays the bass guitar parts with his left hand, while not letting a beat skip on the hooks and melodies with his right. He plays strings, horns, and he always pushes me to be my best. It’s a nice package when we three get together. We can add anyone at that point, from carrying an amateur who wants to get on stage to playing with touring professionals.”
Toolan unapologetically describes the band’s sound as “deck music.” Though the tunes may sound familiar, Low Pressure puts its signature spin on it.
“Our arrangements evolve. The title of the song may be what you know, but we play things with our own sound.”
Good music is good music, and when people are at the beach, they want to have that beachy experience. “The music and the vibe are a part of that experience,” he says.
By day, Toolan stays busy as a Realtor with Century 21 Nachman Realty in Kitty Hawk, specializing in commercial real estate and upscale homes — and he loves it.
“It’s like three full time jobs, but it has as many rewards as playing local music, only with a better financial outlook.”
In addition to Mimi’s Tiki Hut, the band plays private parties and wedding rehearsals — “we’re not a wedding band: Our sound tends to lean to the mellow ballads,” he says.
But performing at Mimi’s is a gig that never gets old.
“Being at Mimi’s is the closest public place I have been to feeling like a private party. People don’t have inhibitions, and its fun,” he says. “It’s a great atmosphere of locals and visitors who come unwind after a day on the ocean. Anything can happen.”
Mimi’s is more than a place to kick back, have a drink and enjoy the view of the marina, he says.
“If you want to travel through space and time, and hear quality music in its raw form — not over produced or routine, ever — in a beautiful setting, come out for a nice evening at Mimi’s. There will be no regrets and you will met a lot of new friends.”