The innovative blend of American and Irish music in the hands of We Banjo 3 is entirely natural and uncanny to hear. PHOTO: YVONNE VAUGHAN
By Colleen Taylor
When you’ve played for the president of the United States, you’ve made it – even if he can’t hold your banjo due to national security reasons. The success of We Banjo 3 is – in the music biz – old news by now. For the past five years, they’ve earned the accolades of fellow traditional Irish and Americana musicians, appeared in technique-based competitions like the All Ireland, commercial venues such as RTE, music award shows like Songlines and Trad album of the year and have gotten glowing reviews from the Irish Times, praise from the Echo’s own Daniel Neely, and most recently, of course, the applause of President Obama himself.
So I’m merely one of many to dip my oar into the pool of the group’s critical praise. By this stage, it goes without saying that We Banjo 3 are something special. They’ve pioneered a new genre fusion of Celtgrass – a mix of traditional Irish and Americana bluegrass. So, with their fourth album, “String Theory,” on the way, I thought I’d not only dig into the sound of their strings, but the ideas behind the banjo. Singer, guitar and banjo player, and youngest of the four band members, David Howley, shared what it was like to play for the president, mix up some musical potions and experience the growth of We Banjo 3 over the years.
Howley chalks the band’s first sold out show up to an idiosyncratic name. He said, “We did our very first gig at the prestigious Galway Arts Festival and ended up selling it out. We think it’s maybe because people thought the name was so weird that they had to see what this band was all about.” I’ll give his modesty the benefit of the doubt on that one, but there’s no denying that it’s their music that has sold the tickets and albums since then, not the band name, catchy as it may be. Nowadays, it’s not quite three banjos, but two, and not three members but four: specifically, two sets of brothers. Enda Scahill (banjo) and Fergal Scahill (fiddle) make up one half, while David (guitar and vocals) and his brother Martin Howley (banjo) make up the other half. Each of the bandmates has his own reputation outside of We Banjo 3 in the traditional music world, but the Americana influences are what set them all apart.
The Howley brothers were led to Celtgrass by osmosis, and perhaps, by a bit of fate. “Our influence came from our dad, as he is a huge American music fan. Growing up we listened to a lot of American and Irish folk artists. When you have Johnny Cash and Guy Clarke on the same mixtape as Paul Brady it really broadens your perspective of music.” Howley’s explanation of his own history with American roots and trad lends something to warm receptions the band’s Celtgrass receives on either side of the Atlantic. The blend of American and Irish music – as innovative as it is in the hands of We Banjo 3 – is also entirely natural and uncanny to hear. Listening to any We Banjo 3 album evokes something of the unfamiliar, unconscious history that lies in every Irish and American cultural psychology, while also sounding new and exciting at the same time. It is—for everyone who hears them – an exhilaratingly personal as well as communal experience.
So where does the magic happen? Where does We Banjo 3 find its historical sixth sense and channel it into their instruments? The four seem to be self-conscious of something magical, or at least, alchemical, in their musicology. The album cover for “String Theory” is a humorous picture of the four dressed in 19th century garb, mixing chemicals in beakers, wearing aprons and goggles, standing around a cauldron, all to comically emphasize the theory end of their album title. But from the sounds of it, there is nothing resolutely scientific or mechanical about the way this band compiles their invigorating tunes. It’s more of an organic, intuitive, and almost spiritual process. “We create our music anywhere from sitting down around someone’s kitchen table or standing side stage before we go on,” David Howley explained. He said the latter can be rather terrifying, as they’ll get some tunes ready right before going on to perform them live for an audience. For Howley, what makes Irish music special is its “wildness” and the band tries to honor that in their sessions. “We have fun with our music and allow it to flow naturally to wherever it goes, that’s the true sound of a band,” he said.
That natural flow has gathered deeper and stronger currents since the band’s foundation in 2009. Howley has witnessed the group growing “bigger and bolder” over the years, especially with the release of their “Live in Galway” album, featuring a brass ensemble. He also says that playing at American music festivals has given the band great exposure that has gotten the creative juices flowing: “We get meet and jam with a lot of great musicians from all around the world. This year we played at the prestigious “Merlefest” in North Carolina where we met amazing bands like “The Wood Brothers”, “The Dave Rawlings Machine” and even “Old Crow Medicine Show”.” We Banjo 3 has also begun to dive deep into their own original songwriting.
“String Theory” is experimental proof that good musicians and more good musicians catalyze great music. “Good Time Ole Time,” for instance, is a truly invigorating set on the new album. Imagine one of your favorite trad sets translated into a different language – familiar enjoyment spoken in an exhilaratingly new dialect. The tune changes are like any trad set, charged with energy, and yet explode into something entirely innovative, all the typical instruments we expect to hear – accordion, flute, fiddles – become footnotes to the banjos’ new translation. We Banjo 3 is also keeping with their bolder sound born out of “Live in Galway,” featuring the brass drama on a couple of songs, including one of my favorites, “Happiness.” This track is a vibrant, youthful song that signifies modernized bluegrass blaring through jubilant fiddles and horns. The country music fans will be pleased with “Ain’t Nobody Else Like You,” featuring Aoife Scott in some gorgeous harmonization that comes right out of Appalacchia (via Ireland). Another favorite is “Island Orchard,” which undergoes a jam-tastic transformation halfway through, suddenly erupting with a new burst of energy. The same can be said of “Kentucky Grind” which features an animated call-and-response musical conversation. No wonder David Howley caught President Obama “tapping his foot and nodding his head”—you can’t help yourself when these banjos come alive.
It’s remarkable to hear these sets and think it’s only four musicians behind the tunes. Maybe that’s the theory behind “String Theory.” The Scahill and Howley men make eight banjo strings, six guitar strings, and four fiddle strings multiply to sound like thousands.
“String Theory” is due for release at the end of the month and is available for pre-order at webanjo3.com. The Banjos will also commence an American tour from Pittsburgh to Chicago throughout the month of August to launch “String Theory” in the States. But you don’t need a theory to justify listening to the exhilarating tunes of We Banjo 3—you just need some common sense.
Colleen Taylor writes the Music Notes column in the Irish Echo each week.