I know I’ve said this before but there are four members of We Banjo 3: two sets of brothers David and Martin Howley and Fergal and Enda Scahill, and only two play banjo but let’s not get bogged down in details. Haven is their fourth studio album and this time they have written all the material, eschewing the traditional music they incorporated into String Theory. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the musical blend is as before – Irish, bluegrass and old-timey – and although We Banjo 3 are Irish they sound more American now, this album being recorded in Maryland, and that’s where they are biggest. In fact, they are in the US right now on a tour spanning five months.
The band opens with the title track beginning with a hesitant sounding mandolin. A banjo takes over for the second verse and trumpet, saxophone and trombone kick in for verse three and just when you think it might get completely out of control it’s over. The playing can sound a bit wild sometimes but it’s actually pretty tight with twin banjos spread nicely across the stereo mix and everyone getting a share of solo time. The first instrumental set is ‘Sugar House’ and it’s pared back at first but by half way everyone is juggling for position and racing for the line.
‘War Of Love’ begins with a wedding and is told from the point of view of the loser and ‘Marry Me Monday’ is a country waltz with Fergal’s fiddle up front while ‘Sunflower’ is a plea for positivism, at least on a personal level – a simple but quite clever metaphor. I do like the simplicity of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ even with its big band treatment and the drive of the instrumentals ‘Annabelle’s Cannon’ and ‘Dawn Breaks’.
I like We Banjo 3 best when their playing is wild and on the verge of losing it or stripped back as far as they can be. On Haven they encompass neither extreme – it’s tight and well played but perhaps a little too controlled.
Take a look at the photographs on the cover of String Theory and you might wonder what you’re letting yourself in for. I mean, these guys look like exiles from Ripper Street! This is the third studio album – there is a live set, too – from the brothers David and Martin Howley and Fergal and Enda Scahill and if you’ve never heard We Banjo 3 before you might still wonder what you’re in for. The name is a puzzle, too: there are four of them but only two play banjo – I suppose that averages out at three!
The boys’ sound is a wild amalgamation of bluegrass, old-timey and Irish, largely traditional with some original compositions and three covers. The set opens with ‘This Is Home’ written by David and Enda, a song expressing hope for continued peace in Ireland and establishing one set of their credentials. Then they switch to ‘Good Time Old Time’, a set of three old-timey tunes, one of them written by Martin followed by ‘Happiness’, an appropriately upbeat song by Tuam singer-songwriter Noelie McDonnell featuring Fergal’s fiddle and the pattern for the album is set.
Greg Brown’s ‘Ain’t Nobody Else Like You’ features vocalist Aoife Scott and other guests include Alison Brown and James Blennerhasset plus a brass section which features on ‘Happiness’. ‘Trying To Love’ is an old song by David and is practically rock’n’roll and We Banjo 3 follow that with the gentle air ‘Crann Na Beatha’ which allows you to draw breath before the sprint to the line. ‘Little Liza Jane’ is a song that everybody knows in one form or another but the star of the set for me is an American variant of ‘Two Sisters’ – there are actually four sisters but the middle pair don’t get much to do.
Finally we get the stonking ‘Chair Snappers’ Delight’ a set which exemplifies the band’s approach. The first tune, ‘Happy Holler’, is an old-timey piece from Tennessee; they got ‘The Wild Irishman’ from Frankie Gavin while ‘I’m Ready Now!’ is from O’Neill’s. String Theory is a great album with some spectacular tunes and fine songs and one we enthusiastically recommend.
WOW (followed by as many exclamation marks as it’s possible to give!) this album gets a resounding ten out of ten and then some. I chanced upon the title of the band via an E mail from folking.com and to say that I was intrigued would be to understate the issue. Banjo players (at least those I have the pleasure of knowing personally) won’t mind me saying that the instrument is much derided within ‘music’ circles but (if you) trust me and are a true ‘music’ lover then do yourself a favour and buy this remarkable offering. Enda Scahill, Martin & David Howley between them show just how, given the right instrument you can engage the listener with displays of brilliant musicianship in both an entertaining (dirty word I know) and truly astonishing technical delivery without having to pander to the “’Ere mate do you play Duelling Banjos?” that is so often encountered in pubs these days. Having delved deep into the Traditional, Old Time and American Music Hall genres as well as doffing the cap to the likes of banjo maestro Gerry O’Connor by performing his beautiful air “Time To Time” alongside the great man himself our heroes all deserve gold medals. I knew the Olympics would crop up somewhere. On another subject it would be great if other ‘folk’ artists would take a leaf out of We Banjo 3’s books and invest some time and money in marketing their product with as much care and attention including the quality of the gatefold jacket, logo and website…ten out of ten for that as well! Dare I say it but if you hadn’t guessed it already this CD will hopefully one day be considered on a par (in folk music terms) with say the first time you heard Steeleye or Fairport. Well, a man can fantasise can’t he?