WE BANJO 3 – Roots To Rise Live (own label WB3CD006)

Roots To Rise LiveWe’ve been through this before but… We Banjo 3 are two pairs of brothers, the Howleys and the Seahills who play a sort of Irish-Americana. They mix traditional songs and tunes with original compositions which they rely on more heavily these days. Roots To Rise Live was recorded in front of enthusiastic audiences over two nights in Ann Arbor, Michigan earlier this year. This isn’t their first live album but it’s the first one I’ve heard and it came as something of surprise. For their studio albums We Banjo 3 employ guest musicians and everything that a studio can offer and I’ve sometimes found their arrangements rather too dense although tightly controlled. I was expecting, therefore, that the volume and speed would be cranked up. How wrong I was. Stripped back to just what the four of them can do, I’d venture to say that Roots To Rise Live is the best We Banjo 3 album I‘ve heard.

The album opens with ‘Shine On’ which exhibits just the right level of freedom to set the album on its way. That’s followed by the instrumental set, ‘Puncheon Floor’, the title track from their most recent album, Haven, and the waltz, ‘Marry Me Monday’ from the same set. ‘Little Liza Jane’ is a real crowd pleaser and so is ‘Wynne’s’ as the pace builds up but, before that, ‘This Is Home’ settles things down a little. The set, as it’s presented here, is beautifully constructed so that by the time we get to ‘Prettiest Little Girl’ the guys are really rocking. ‘Trying To Love’ doesn’t let up and the traditional instrumental set, ‘Good Time Old Time’ sends the crowd home in a very happy mood.

If you weren’t in Ann Arbor back in February, and it’s probable that you weren’t, this is a perfect record of what you missed.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Prettiest Little Girl’ – live:

WE BANJO 3 – Haven (own label WB3CD005)

HavenI 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.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: http://webanjo3.com/

‘Don’t Let Me Down’ – live:

WE BANJO 3 – String Theory (own label WB3CD004)

string theoryTake 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.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: http://www.webanjo3.com/

‘Happiness’ – official video:

Folking at Cambridge Folk Festival 2013 – Day 3

wb3_300Those following this blog will know that it would not be complete without an early morning campsite folking shower report – although those on-site would have had a deluge of their own later in the day when KT “rain goddess” Tunstall took to the stage and opened the heavens – but more on that later. My first shower was at 5.00am, an hour earlier than the day before! Perhaps it was the excitement of the previous 2 days, or perhaps it was just the the showers but Cambridge was not awarding me much sleep.

Breabach danceAs I was finishing the day 2 blog We Banjo 3 took to the main stage, a quintet from Galway playing Irish, bluegrass and American old time music. From what I saw on the #CFF13 @CamFolkFest twitter feed they were definitely making many instant fans and got Saturday stage 1 off to a rousing start. Next up were the mighty Breabach, a tour de force in the Scottish music scene. They had a great array of weaponry on hand including: highland bagpipes, fiddle, guitar, double bass, mandolin, bazouki and even included a set dance by fiddle payer, Megan Henderson.

Saturday Cambs FF CrowdBoth SOC (Son of Clicker – the folking photographer) and I knew that getting to see everything today was going to be tough with all 3 stages in full swing. In fact panic set in and we ran around like headless chickens for a bit until coming to our senses and catching the end of the Festival Session, hosted by Battlefield Band and Feast of Fiddles academic legend Brian McNeil. This was a one off line-up featuring: The Chair, Frigg, The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, Radio 2 young folk award winners Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar, Martin Simpson, Le Vent du Nord and We Banjo 3 again.

Hop and a skip back to the Stage 1 to see Martin Simpson performing a guitar master class wrapped up in his usual exemplary solo set kind of way which included favourites like the you were never any good with money gem Prodigal Son and Jackie and Murphy, a story song of an epic true tale of bravery, donkeys and Gallipoli.

Thea Gilmore CFFManaged to then catch the end of the talented and velvet voiced Heidi Talbot on stage 2 as she left us all going up and down her music tree, Korrontzi from Northern Spain were next up and made you feel part of a Basque hill town knees up for a short while (it was great to see Thea Gilmore dancing along to them back stage). It wasn’t long until Thea took center stage with her full band line up which included producer, husband and multi-instrumentalist Nigel Stonier. Thea definitely showed off her folk credentials by giving us a faultless performance of Pity the Poor Immigrant. Thea then belted out the Radio 2 A listed song Start As We Mean To Go On, before ending with what for me was the highlight of the day, a perfect rendition to the stunning London with her little lad taking center stage on the fiddle. Sandy Denny who wrote the lyrics to this song is my folk heroine and Thea is equally addictive.

There was only one way to come down and that was to head over to the club tent and catch State Of The Union, aka Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams. In the grand tradition of ‘The Special Relationship’, State Of The Union combines the talents of America and England, producing an end result that delighted the club tent crowd with hook-laden songs, fiery and emotional guitar playing and soulful vocals. By this time I had a few jars of Ringwood’s finest Boon Doggle ale and was amusing myself by keeping the girls at the bar on their toes and coming up with different names for it. The firm favourite was Moon Poodle!

Fully Protected & The Moon PoodleThe Moon Poodle was listening as the heavens opened and the poodle piddled down on us as KT Tunstall hit the stage. A great set followed, my favourite being Other Side of the World or dark side of the poodle moon by the Black horse and a cherry tree, no that one actually came later… but don’t blame it on the Sunshine, don’t blame it on the moonlight, blame it on the Boggle. I was past caring as I was now focused on keeping the umbrella in the right place for KT’s Mexican “brella” wave!

I caught a bit of the Mavericks but it was definitely time to head back to Coldham’s before I did myself mischief…

The folkmaster

WE BANJO 3 – Roots Of The Banjo Tree

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?

Pete Fyfe

Artist web link – www.webanjo3.com

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