Irish Quartet ‘Celtgrass’ We Banjo 3 marches to the beat of a different rhythm
The first thing to notice about We Banjo 3 is of course the banjos: they indeed have three of them, and manage to use all of them in many of their songs. But the Irish acoustic quartet stands out above all for its writing, which is reinforced by unusual arrangements.
“It’s true that some of our songs might sound like rock songs if we arranged them that way,” said David Howley, banjo/guitar player and lead singer. “But the magic comes from ignoring the idea of what a song should be. We toured with a choir, we had a drummer, we played with a full horn section. We tried different versions of what the group could be.
“But since there’s usually just four of us, we don’t have the backline to lean on the bassist or the drummer. We have to create the music with the instrumentation we have, and with that dynamic, we can’t take the easy route.
The group performs at the Somerville Theater on May 8.
The group was formed in Galway by two pairs of brothers, David and Martin Howley and Enda and Fergal Scahill. All of them die on different string instruments, and most have been playing together since childhood. Their sound has often been dubbed “Celtgrass”, for its fusion of traditional Irish and American elements.
“I think American music is influenced by Irish music that traveled with immigrants, so those roots are connected to the underground. They are like family members with different accents.
“We all grew up originally in the Irish music culture, but our dad was also a big country and folk fan, so old songs like ‘Long Black Veil’ were a huge part of our upbringing, people of this group seem to be like sponges, we pick up music wherever we go.
“When we started the band, we had our blinders on in some ways,” Howley said. “We went from very casual games in Ireland to touring all over America, it really picked up at a rapid speed.
“We noticed that in America there were a lot of traditional bands and then a lot of Celtic rock bands, but there was a gap between the two where something was missing. So maybe we could be traditional, but also add other elements.
“And being two sets of brothers means the arrangements come quite naturally. There is no musical director in this group.
Still, the band’s lyrical focus can be very untraditional. Although uplifting in tone, they have written many songs about overcoming depression and have partnered with a handful of mental health organizations to raise awareness.
“I would say those songs came out of conversations I had with myself at the time,” Howley said. “If they became uplifting songs, it was kind of a happy accident. When you write about a specific feeling in your life, you risk this incredible exposure, so it’s been an interesting journey.
“And since then, so many people have reached out to us and said, ‘I feel like you wrote that song for me.’ At first it was terrifying, but then we realized there was a responsibility there, if people came to our shows and sang, then they opened up in a vulnerable way.
“That’s why we brought in these organizations to set up tables, to make sure the right tools were there.”