The 'Led Zeppelin of the banjo'

We Banjo Three to headline major GIAF/Róisín Dubh concert

We Banjo Three in full on Steam Punk mode.

We Banjo Three in full on Steam Punk mode.

WE BANJO Three are a band on the move. They have spent the last few months criss-crossing the USA - including playing for Barack Obama; wowing the Japanese; and recording their soon to be released new album. Now their sights are set on being the biggest band in the world - from Galway.

The mission statement is clear. "It's a long time since anyone has achieved anything on the level The Saw Doctors, and notwithstanding their comeback, Galway needs a 'Galway Band'," We Banjo Three leader, Enda Scahill, tells me. "We've conquered all the Irish-American festivals and become the biggest touring Irish based Irish band. Germany and Japan have been great. We're making headway in Britain. I think we're really close to achieving this."

This is no idle boast. The Americana, Irish folk/trad, and bluegrass quartet of Enda and Fergal Scahill and Martin and David Howley are arguably the most successful Galway band since The Saw Doctors, commanding sizable and ever growing audiences on their international tours, and 2016 has just seen things getting even bigger.

"Bedlam!" is how Enda characterises it. "It's been the busiest start to any year, but it's also been very positive. We recorded a fourth album; did two big US tours - one was in performing arts centers, which are 2-3,000 seater places - and we also were a headliner at MerleFest, and one of the most prestigious folk festivals in the world."

The band see their arts festival concert in Seapoint, Salthill, on Wednesday July 13 at 7.30pm - with Hermitage Green and JigJam also on the bill - as a major step in their ascent.

"The idea behind this show was to move into that unique place The Saw Doctors left and establish ourselves as the Galway band," says Enda. "We also love collaborating with other bands and Hermitage Green and JigJam are at the top of their game. We want to put an Americana jam party together, playing energetic music, and with an emphasis on fun. This kind of show is something we'd like to roll out on a yearly basis."

"Our first show as a band was at the Galway Arts Festival in the Róisín Dubh during a lunchtime session," says Martin. "Before that we were only an idea in Enda's kitchen."

'I've no friends on this plane!'

The highlight of the year so far though, has to be playing for US president Barack Obama. It happened in March, when We Banjo Three were selected to represent Ireland at the Friends of Ireland Luncheon in Capitol Hill, Washington DC, the annual event where the Taoiseach presents the US president with a bowl of shamrock.

"Clare Fitzpatrick from the Irish consulate was looking for a band to play and Claire Rumpsa, from the Washington-Ireland Programme recommended us," says Enda. "We were on a plane when we got the news. Fergal runs up with the phone saying 'Look at this!' The event was taking place on only one of two free days we had during that tour and it would mean a 21 hour drive out of our way, but there was no way we were going to turn this down.

"We were all in the passenger class, but Dave had managed to get himself a seat in first class. We asked the stewardess if she could get him to join us for the news, but she said 'I can't do that'. Then we told her we'd be playing for the President of the United States. Suddenly it was, 'Oh, who is he? I'll get him for you!' We told her he was a guy in a red check shirt and a cap. Turns out there were two guys in first class in red check shirts and caps. Both were asleep. She woke the wrong one, who told her: "I don't have any friends on this plane!'"

We Banjo Three Obama

The day was a surreal mix of high energy music, alarmingly friendly high power politicians, and intimidating US security and secret service men.

"Barack Obama was was two-and a half feet to my left, just a few back from me," says Fergal. "We met Joe Biden who said to us, 'Hi! I'm Joe Biden'. Eh yes, we know who you are!"

"It was a very intense day," recalls Enda. "We had a lady from Speaker Paul Ryan's office who was assigned to us. When it came to going to the room where the event was taking place the halls leading into it were lined with secret service men. There were snipers on the roof, and not so secret service men with automatic weapons.

"Each had been given seven files detailing each and every movement of everyone in the room. The woman told us to stick by her and make no sudden movement, 'Do not swing the banjo over your head', and 'Do not ask the president to hold the banjo as he will refuse' - which is why Martin asked him four times to hold the banjo!"

Fergal adds: "He said, 'Everybody knows I can't play the banjo!' He loved the band though, loved our music. Was very friendly, charismatic, you can see why people adore him."

"Paul Ryan is famous for liking hard rock and he introduced us as 'the Led Zeppelin of the banjo'," says Martin. "Obama took time to meet with each of us. He genuinely has that statesman like gravitas, where he occupies all of your vision, and makes you feel like you are with your best friend. I'd never come across anyone like that before."

'She even had a fiddle shaped handbag'

Neither had We Banjo Three come across audiences like those they played for in Japan. Stories of Queen, KISS, and Cheap Trick going to Japan in the 1970s to be met with mass hysteria before they were widely known anywhere else are legendary. So how did the Irish quartet go down?

"The Japanese are like no other audiences," says Fergal. "If they have turned up, they are willing to go with you from the first note. There's no warm-up. If you ask them to clap along in the first song they will do that, there's just such a willingness to go to the gig, and a feeling that once they like you, they are life-long fans. We met people who were at six of our concerts in a row! There was even a women who remembered me from fiddle workshops I'd given there in 2009 and who had gone on to learn Irish jigs and reels."

"She even had a fiddle shaped handbag," notes Martin. However any Cheap Trick at Budokan style hysteria may be a little way in future. "As for being mobbed?" Fergal says. "Not yet!"

Ahead of that tour, I did meet Fergal listening to a Japanese language audio lesson, attempting to learn some phrases to say at gigs, and there was further help from a Japanese in-law.

"She translated loads of phrases for us phonetically," notes Enda. "People in Japan don't have much or any English. Martin wanted phrases that were specific to different areas, colloquial terms and such. That worked out a treat. We were making all these quirky references to TV adverts from the seventies…although at one point Martin did say 'I impregnated a bus'!"

On Monday July 4, We Banjo Three's fourth album, String Theory, will be available for pre-order ahead of its formal release on Saturday July 30. The cover shows the band in Steam-Punk attire working like a series of mad scientists on a heady broth spewing from a distillation apparatus.

"It represents our approach to music, the distilling and mixing of Irish and American forms, but it's also very different from what we've recorded before. There will be more original music, very much a mix of Irish and American. We've never worked as hard on an album before, and we've never been as proud of one, that's for definite."

This is a Galway International Arts Festival and Róisín Dubh presents...' event. Booking is through the GIAF box office, Galway Tourist Office, Forster Street (Mondays to Saturdays, 10am to 5pm, 091 - 566577 ), www.giaf.ie, and www.roisindubh.net

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