We Banjo 3 build fascinating niche

By Daniel Neely

We Banjo 3 is a band comprised of high-caliber, imaginative players whose musical vision strikes a clean balance between Irish traditional and American old-time and bluegrass musics. I’ve discussed WB3’s music here before and think highly of what they do, which is why I’m pleased to write about the group’s newest offering, a concert album recorded at Galway’s Roisin Dubh called “Live in Galway.” It’s a well-hewn effort that maintains the group’s high standard and reinforces the legend of their high-energy shows.

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We Banjo 3 have built for themselves a fascinating musical niche. Because the American roots element in their music is so strong and so accessible, the group has an obvious appeal to the sizable community of Irish Americans who not only wholeheartedly (and sometimes zealously) embrace their Irishness, but who also have an abiding taste for American roots sounds. The group’s love for these sounds is obvious and its handling of them so sound that it makes one wonder if Enda & co. haven’t been living in Galway all these years but have actually been hiding out in Appalachia somewhere.

Take “High on a Mountain,” for example, a song learned from a recording of North Carolinian Ola Belle Reed. Singer David Howley sings its “high, lonesome”–style old-time melody with an open bore throat and is accompanied by Norianna Kennedy and Nicola Joyce, whose harmonies absolutely shimmer in beauty. Together with Enda Scahill and Martin Howley’s banjos and Fergal Scahill’s fiddle, the track has a very convincing – and very attractive – country sensibility.

Not content to simply explore banjo-based folk traditions, the album’s opener is “Get Onboard,” a rousing “call to action” to open the live set that the group learned from blues singer Eric Bibb. It sports a full horn arrangement that suggests the blues, but the track is actually something of a roller-coaster of styles, capped by a deeply bluegrass-inspired banjo solo and a fiddle solo that has a strong western swing sensibility, all of which gives the track added dimension and generates excitement.

Indeed, horns are an important part of this album. One of my favorite tracks is “The Bunch of Green Rushes / Salt Creek,” which places familiar Irish tunes played on fiddle and banjo within a nuanced horn arrangement that extends and enhances what might otherwise be a fairly predictable track in terms of harmonic outlook. The horns have a similarly attention-grabbing manner in “Pressed For Time,” a modern composition by the Scottish bagpiper Gordon Duncan that gives it sort of an indie-folk sound.

As in their live show, this album has a lot of variety in terms of keys, styles and tempos which helps carry the album from beginning to end. The tracks I’ve discussed here thus far have all been up tempo, but tracks like “Air Tune” and “Lonesome Road” are great examples that show how the group is able change pace and bring thoughtful variety to their performances. Both of these tracks are very strong on their own, but they’re smartly placed in the course of the album because they help reinforce the notion that we’re listening to the live album and that the band has its audience’s interests at heart.

“Live in Galway” is an album that conveys the spontaneous sense of a live performance. Audience reactions and sing-alongs coupled with the kind of musical rawness one would hear at a live show set the right tone in terms of “in the moment” authenticity and are major reasons for the album’s success. Fans of We Banjo 3 will be very excited to hear this album, as it has the familiar sound the group’s studio albums, but with more expansive arrangements and the energy of their live performance. Country music fans who might not know WB3’s music will be attracted to this album because it represents a fresh take on familiar sounds. It is only a matter of time before this band gets a fuller taste of mainstream success. Have a listen, especially if your taste skews towards American roots music – you will be delighted! Visit www.webanjo3.com for more information.

Daniel Neely’s traditional music column appears weekly in the Irish Echo.