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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Do You Love The Banjo? We Banjo 3 at the Ark

Enda, Martin, David and Fergal (We Banjo 3)
Do you love the Banjo?  Such was the question posed by  We Banjo 3 at the start of their show at The Ark in Ann Arbor.  A self-proclaimed "four-person band, called We Banjo 3, with only two banjos", this group of young Irish lads brought their brand of high-energy acoustic music to the best listening room in the country.  Labeled as a traditional Irish instrumental band, this dual-brother act was anything but.  True, they featured traditional acoustic instrumentation (tenor banjo(es), mandolin, guitar and fiddle) and their set included the the reels  and jigs you would expect, but also a good dose of contemporary folk-based songs and some innovative instrumentation and electronic enhancements.  Brothers David (guitar, lead vox) and Martin (mando, banjo) Howley team with Enda (banjo) and Fergal (fiddle) Scahill to deliver an energetic and enthusiastic performance that had the crowd electrified from the first note.  By the time the encore rolled around (a killer cover of "The Fox" by Nickel Creek), they had the entire crowd on their feet dancing and clapping the roof off the joint.  Definitely among the finest performances I have seen at the Ark.

"Brother Harmony" (Even Instrumentally)
Fans of bluegrass will find the brother's brand of acoustic music extremely palatable.  The set this night included a couple of bluegrass standards, including a groovy and melodic cover of Bill Monroe's "Salt Creek".  While the classic "G-run" was conspicuously absent from their repertoire,  the inclusion of oh-so-Irish lightning-fast triplets and machine-gun-staccato licks both payed homage the mountain tradition and put the band's own unique spin on the songs.  The bluegrass element the band nailed perfectly was the inclusion of flawless three- and four-part harmonies.  This was really apparent on an absolutely stunning cover of the Lefty Frizzel' classic "Long Black Veil".  Somehow, they were able to infuse this song of murder, cheating and betrayal with with overtones of joy and love.  If you listen to one song from this group I highly recommend this one.

The Soulful David Howley
Lead singer and guitarist David Howley was at once instantly likeable and entertaining in his role as band-spokesman between songs.  Lots of banjo jokes and good-natured ribbing of his bandmates kept things rolling during the inevitable banjo tuning between songs.  David displayed a wide ranging vocal ability with a mellow and soulful voice perfectly suited the streets of the band's hometown, Gallway Ireland.  He also shifted into a soulful and gritty "Dixieland Blues" type voice more suited to Beale Street in Memphis or even Lower Broadway in Nashville.  As usual, I found it funny that even the heaviest Irish accent somehow comes out pure American when singing those bluesy tunes.  His guitar playing provided a driving rhythm perfectly suited to the Irish-style banjo.  Interestingly, his Larrivee guitar was fitted with two pickups.  I assume one is a traditional acoustic pickup.  The other was a soundhole pickup (similar to a Baggs M2) but installed parallel to the strings over the top string.  It appeared that this pickup also routed the sound from that one string through an effects pedal--I assume some sort of octavizer.   With the guitar tuned in DADGAD, David is able to play the rhythm on the lower 4-5 stings while walking a bass line on the upper string(s).  Combined with an electronic stomp-box played by Fergal to give some percussiveness to the bass line, it sounds--with your eyes closed--like there was a fifth member of the band offstage playing an booming bass line.  While he played mostly rhythm lines, the occasional instrumental break he did contribute would make any modern flatpicker proud.

Martin Howley--Loves What He Does!
While David may be the soul of the band, older brother Martin was definitely the heart.  Alternating between mandolin and banjo all night long, he was often totally caught up in the music; eyes closed and head tipped back--totally immersed in the band's groove.  His easy-going voice matched his demeanor, blending effortlessly with his brother in near-perfect "brother harmony".  Martin wears his heart on his sleeve.  Quick with a grin when one of his bandmate's threw in a particularly cool lick and contributing an enthusiastic "HUP!" when the band shifted into high gear, it is obvious that Martin loves what he does!  All business from the belt up, with a button down shirt and vest, his cotton duck pants and scuffed leather shoes--complete with knotted and tattered laces--betrayed his obviously working-class roots.   A champion banjo player, Martin none-the-less displayed some amazing mandolin work during the set.  Tending towards melodic fills rather than a traditional "chop", his Irish triplets and crosspicking gave him a very unique sound.  The tone from his Collings mandolin was as rich and woody as you will hear.  Bluegrass purists probably would not approve of his use of a <GASP> mandolin capo, but I dare any of them to keep up with him when the band hits their stride.   On the banjo, he really cut loose, effortlessly complementing and enhancing Enda's playing.  I'm not sure if he's a better mandolin or banjo player.  Probably both.

Banjo Master Enda Scahill
 According to the band's website, Enda Scahill literally wrote the book(s) on Irish Banjo.  I believe it.  Playing a tenor (4-string) banjo in the Irish style (strummed with a pick rather than 3-finger "Scruggs" style) he transformed the banjo from the twangy, rhythmic sound familiar to American audiences, into a subtle and melodic instrument capable of conveying a range of emotions and suited to the wide variety of music the band played.  Lightning fast with both hands, his playing was meticulously clear and crisp with an unbelievably clean staccato, even on the fastest of licks.   His dry and sardonic wit was evident in his verbal exchanges with the band, and when he introduced the (mostly) traditional tunes the band played.  Like Martin, he often plays with his eyes closed, caught up in the band's groove.  I was intrigued by his banjo as well.  While the bluegrass banjo's I'm familiar with feature oversized resonators, plain metal tone rings and elaborate inlay work on the fretboard, both Martin and Enda's banjo's featured resonators the same size as the tone ring (which was elaborately engraved) and subtle inlay on the peghead and fingerboard.  Something I'd never seen before was some sort of "beanbag" attached to the back of the banjo...perhaps to help keep the back of the resonator from damping against the body.  Overall, very different, but true works of art. 

Fergal on the Bodhran.  Wow.  Just Wow.
In an incredibly tight band, with a perfectly blended sound, violinist Fergal Scahill found a way to stand out.  Perhaps it was the red pants?  With a fiddle caked in rosin, you could tell he puts in the hours necessary to be a true master of his instrument.  He even threw in some "bow flips" during the set (though I don't thing he planned on throwing his bow at the guy next to me in the front row!)  Equally versed in the intricate fiddle melodies almost required by traditional tunes, and melodic accompaniment to more modern tunes, Fegal's contribution to the band's sound is immense.  Add to that his rich harmony singing, and the percussion contribution he makes on a Porchboard electronic stompbox.  He even supplied one of the night's most memorable moments with an extended solo on the Bodhran...worthy (and probably better) than any Tommy Lee wannabees out there. 

So, do I love the banjo?  Well...yes.  But after this show, even more.