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We Banjo 3 at Montalvo Arts Center

In Music
GREEN GRASS: 'Celtgrass' founders We Banjo 3 bring the modern traditional sounds of Galway to Montalvo.

GREEN GRASS: 'Celtgrass' founders We Banjo 3 bring the modern traditional sounds of Galway to Montalvo.

Music is a part of the scenery wherever you go in Ireland, but that’s especially true in Galway. In this beautiful city on Ireland’s craggy west coast, traditional Irish music flourishes in clubs and academies and in the streets.

Growing from Galway’s fertile musical soil, the Irish bluegrass quartet We Banjo 3 were informed by the sounds of their hometown, as well as by an appreciation of American country music—particularly the old-timey porch pickings of Appalachia.

WB3 have been exporting a brand of music called “celtgrass” since forming in 2011. The portmanteau genre neatly captures the group’s distinctly hybrid approach, part Paul Brady and part Earl Scruggs.

“We don’t fit in a neat little box,” says Martin Howley, one of the group’s three banjo players. “‘Celtgrass’ is an elevator-pitch term that someone applied to us, and it worked. In this day and age, people need to know what you are. If you can’t define yourself, nobody else can.”

The ancestral links between bluegrass and Irish music are well known. Bluegrass emerged from the transplanted folk tradition in the 18th century, when Irish, Scottish and British settlers populated the rugged mountains of the southern United States. But few contemporary bands draw the parallels as sharply as We Banjo 3, which as its name suggests features three of its four players on banjo (brothers Martin and David Howley plus bandmate Enda Scahill). The band’s fourth member is fiddler and guitarist Fergal Scahill, Enda’s brother.

Like so many other kids who grew up in Galway, the Howley brothers were steeped in Irish traditional music. But at home, their father—also named Martin—was exposing his sons to old-line American country music like Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. A bit later came Flatt & Scruggs, Sam Bush, New Grass Revival and a world of bluegrass that the boys noticed had a lot in common with the Irish jigs and reels that they loved.

The Scahill brothers had played the American market before the Howleys, and when the four players came together to form a band, their vision roamed well beyond the horizons of Ireland. Pushing a uniquely banjo-centric sound, WB3 released their first recording in 2012, which was named Traditional Irish Album of the Year by The Irish Times. The band’s second record, Gather the Good, raised their profile further, and soon they were playing international stages and tapping into the rich fan base of progressive bluegrass.

This summer, WB3 released their fifth album, titled Haven, which reached the top spot on Billboard’s bluegrass charts in September. Haven, says Howley, marks a new step forward in the band’s evolution.

“It was a hugely important piece of work for us, because it’s first time we’ve deviated,” he explains. It’s the group’s first album of entirely original material. As such, it reveals the band’s personality and thematic interests more directly than its older material. New songs such as “Light in the Sky” and “Hang On to Your Soul” are direct evocations of the better angels of human nature. The latter was reportedly inspired by the tragedy of a fan’s suicide.

“The impetus (behind the album) was to give people refuge and a sense of safety,” says Howley, “and that we’re far more connected by our commonality than we are separated by our individual differences.”

The Howley brothers now live in Nashville, but the Scahills are still calling the west of Ireland home. In their touring, the musicians of We Banjo 3 are seeing a love of bluegrass bloom in such places as Colombia, Japan and Eastern Europe.

“There’s a certain cohort of people that we’ve met who transcend nationalism,” says Howley. “They’re people of the world and are interested in connections between all people and cultures of the world. I’ve often felt that through connecting with other cultures, you increase your awareness of your own. I feel like that’s our mission.”

We Banjo 3
Oct 17, 7:30pm, $43+
Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga

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