David Howley, lead singer and guitarist for We Banjo 3, grew up in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, an area steeped in traditional Irish music which featured tin whistles, Uilleann pipes, flutes, fiddles and later accordions and concertinas.
Yet he and his banjo-playing brother, Martin, and another set of musical brothers, Enda (banjo) and Fergal Scahill (fiddle), listened to a variety of musical genres and since 2012 have blended traditional Irish music and American bluegrass into what they call Celtgrass, which can be heard when We Banjo 3 performs at Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, Oct. 17 as part of its American tour.
The tour is an opportunity for audiences to experience the energetic performance captured on the band’s most recent CD, “Roots to Rise Live,” recorded earlier this year at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the follow-up to the band’s landmark 2018 release, “Haven,” which spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart, a first for an Irish band. The Ark is a world renowned acoustic music venue, where We Banjo 3 has played often in recent years.
“We really wanted to capture what a live show in America was like for us,” David adds. “The Ark is like hallowed ground for folk music. We know we have great shows there and we enjoy it so much. Martin’s wife is from the area. Even while doing a live album we wanted to make sure the quality of album was up to studio standards. We literally dragged an entire recording studio into The Ark. That allowed us to have the energy and life of a live performance with the quality of studio grade microphones, pre-amps and processing.”
“Roots to Rise Live” is an energetic mix of 14 tracks spanning original compositions, traditional tunes, and select covers that demonstrate the wide musical influences the two sets of brothers have used to forge their sound.
A career as a touring band was perhaps fated for the brothers, David says. When they were children, the Howleys’ music-loving father would place a cassette player outside the door of the bedroom David and Martin shared so the youngsters could hear some of the music he enjoyed.
“He made mixtapes for us,” he says. “I remember one that was literally a mixture of Garth Brooks, The Chieftains, and Doc Watson. Completely schizophrenic as you possibly can get.”
The exposure by both sets of brothers to traditional Irish music, American country and bluegrass as they grew up led them to master their instruments and win recognition among the finest musicians in Ireland. Enda Scahill has recorded with Grammy-winner Ricky Scaggs and performed with The Chieftains and his brother, Fergal, was recognized as Irish Champion of fiddle. Martin Howley is a seven-time All-Ireland Banjo Champion who has performed at the Grand Ole Opry and toured across Europe and the U.S.
“The community aspect of Irish music is massive; probably the most integral part of the music is community. That’s highly similar to bluegrass music,” David says. “You look at bluegrass as a whole and as it developed and it’s music of the people who get together after a day of work, pull out their fiddles and banjos and play. I think Irish music reflects that. They’re both in some ways the same beast, but of slightly different nationalities. That’s what we wanted to explore.”
With a curiosity about learning and playing other genres of music as its driving force, David says We Banjo 3 is an Irish band not because it plays a specific style of music, but because its members happened to grow up on the Emerald Isle. The band views music as limitless and prefers to invite its audience to join in its exploration of music, wherever it may go on a given night.
“Our music is really about the interaction,” he says. “You can hear that on the Ann Arbor recording. So many shouts in the middle of the songs. It’s like a war cry and all of a sudden we all play 50% better than we could normally dream of playing. That’s the adrenaline, that rush you get when you’re playing music. It’s invigorating. It flows through your hands and your fingers and your skin. You just feel so connected to this very moment. That’s what we want. We want people to come and rather than us playing to you, we want you to be part of us.”
An example on “Roots to Rise Live” is the track “Prettiest Little Girl in the County,” which originally was performed as a slow ballad. While on tour last year Howley says the musicians started playing the song faster than usual.
“In the middle of the song I just launched into Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ without telling the guys and it made the show,” David says. “One of the things we strive to do as musicians is we never want to be comfortable because comfort for us means we’re negligent; we’re not thinking about the music, we’re just going through the motions. We always want to be literally on the edge of comfort, as much as we can be.”
He says We Banjo 3 has covered songs by The Jackson 5, Cher’s “Believe” and Hozier’s “Take Me to Church by Hozier among others ” while in concert, adding “Every night we throw in one or two songs just for fun. I want to show people this is just music and anything’s possible.”
The “Roots to Rise” tour continues the band’s partnership with Mental Health America, aimed at raising funds and awareness for the organization, with $2 from the sale of every band t-shirt donated to the organization.
“What they [Mental Health America] do is so important in the world,” David says, noting he struggled with mental health issues as he tried to establish his career when he was younger. “When I was 17 I would have given anything to have somebody that would understand. You isolate yourself in those times thinking, nobody can know how I feel. There world is hard right now; there’s a lot of hate thrown around. Music is the great communicator, the thing that brings us together.”
We Banjo 3 will visit the First Year Experience course, “Connecting with the Arts,” led by Jorgensen Center director Rodney Rock, on the day of their performance to discuss their career, play music, and answer questions. Music students from the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) Aerospace and Engineering Elementary School in Rocky Hill will perform with the band. CREC choir students previously sang with the group during performances in 2017 and 2018 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford.
The We Banjo 3 performance is co-sponsored by WHUS, UConn’s student radio station, and Chion Wolf Productions. For more information visit the website of the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts.