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Music

Four musicians from Galway bring high-energy ‘Celtgrass’ to Alaska this week

  • Author: Chris Bieri
  • Updated: October 2
  • Published October 2

Irish bluegrass sensation We Banjo 3 performs Oct. 5 in the Discovery Theatre, presented by Anchorage Concert Association

When We Banjo 3 formed, the question for the band wasn’t what type of music they’d play. For the two sets of brothers from Galway, Ireland, that path was virtually preordained.

“We all started off in the Irish idiom,” singer/guitarist David Howley said. “Growing up, we were steeped in Irish traditional music.”

The only real question was which instrument each member would play. Both Howley and his brother Martin as well as brothers Enda and Fergal Scahill were talented multi-instrumentalists with over a dozen “All Ireland" titles collectively as champion soloists.

But despite the overabundance of instrumental talent, the Howley and Scahill brothers managed to settle into roles that maximized their expertise and worked for the group.

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“We played essentially what is our first love,” Howley said. “Guitar and singing is the medium I can best connect on. Enda is largely regarded as one of the leading tenor banjo players. Fergal plays fiddle, it’s the voice that fits him best."

Once the instrumental pieces were in place, We Banjo 3 began its evolution to its current form -- an energetic hybrid of Irish music and American string music dubbed “Celtgrass."

Their first two albums “Roots of the Banjo Tree” in 2012 and “Gather the Good” two years later gave the band original work to perform live.

“We wanted to take music that had a soul and a message and mix that with a highly entertaining and inviting show,” Howley said. “That was the initial concept. How do we take these songs that we’ve written that have deep messages and make it approachable.”

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The mix of Irish and American music had always been at the core of the Howley brothers’ experience. Growing up, they’d fall asleep to the sounds of the Chieftains, Doc Watson and others who experimented in the folk traditions of both countries.

“For me it was our father,” Howley said. “We would fall asleep at night to the sound of these cassettes. We pretty much hit all the musical genres as far as American and Irish music mixed together. We didn’t really see any border.”

In recent years, Howley said the band has experimented more in different genres, incorporating R&B sounds and horn sections into their music to their foundational sound.

“In a world where you’re not defined by a genre, you’re free to experiment and when you experiment that’s where you find your best stuff,” he said. “There’s no limits. For us as a band, we’ve always been blown away by the heart and soul of American folk music and we mix the driving beat of Irish music.”

Playing in a band with two sets of brothers has introduced its own challenges, but Howley said it has also led to a full democratic process.

“It’s both amazing and horrible,” Howley said with a laugh. “Most brothers are trained to say they don’t fight or argue. People ask us if we fight or argue. We argue all the time. We argue on a daily basis, but I think we argue about the important things, like what’s the best song we can write.”

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“I always say I was born with one brother and inherited two others. There is no leader, there’s such an equality in the band. Everyone’s perspective is slightly different. It ends up putting the band in a better stronger place."

After releasing “Haven” last year, the band recorded a live album, “Roots To Rise, Live" in late July.

“The music we’ve written and changed over the years have changed and adapted,” Howley said. “The songs we play each night, some become slower or faster, become rock songs or ballads. We thought it was necessary to take a brief snapshot of our music. It gave us a reason to go back and revisit some of those songs."

In their eight years together as a band, We Banjo 3 has developed a reputation as a high-energy live show that draws from a broad audience. That’s something that Howley said the band takes great pride in.

“What we want our music to do, is allow a place for people to actually become unified and become part of something,” he said. “We look down on some nights and there’s a 90-year old grandmother with their granddaughter, people with different political views, religious creeds or skin colors. Whether you’re in the front of the room or the back of the room, you’re part of something. If that’s our only contribution to the world, we’ll be happy."

We Banjo 3

Friday, at Hering Auditorium in Fairbanks, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, at Discovery Theatre in Anchorage, 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, at Civic Center in Valdez, 6 p.m.


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