ALL CONQUERING quartet We Banjo 3 make a rare hometown appearance at the end of this month when they play The Black Box for a 'Monroe's Live presents...' show on Friday May 26 at 8pm and it promises to be a storming gig.
The group’s international tours have meant that, for the past few years, they only perform in Galway once or twice a year. “We did Seapoint last July with Hermitage Green and that sold out and was electric, and the Black Box will be the same,” the band's Enda Scahill tells me. “When you only get to do one show a year people are really excited about it and we love doing it. America is so busy we only get to do one Irish tour per year and our hometown gigs are great.”
The group have been enjoying ever greater success in the US over the past 12 months. Their album, String Theory, went to No 1 on Billboard’s world music charts, making them the first independent Irish band to achive this distinction. They also appeared at the prestigious invite-only Merlefest gathering.
“That was phenomenal,” Scahill declares. “Doc Watson set up Merlefest in honour of his son Merle. The festival takes place in North Carolina in a dry county so there is no drink. You have 17,000 music fans who come and camp there for the weekend and are there just to hear the music, as opposed to festivals here where people go to hang out and drink beer and all that. The Merlefest audience are hardcore music lovers. It was amazing to see the people we had been listening to for the last 10 or 15 years, the likes of Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, John Prine, up on stage.”
What was it like to perform alongside such luminaries? “In one sense it’s terrifying, especially when you are onstage with that quality of musicians,” Scahill says. “The bluegrass musicians there are technically really, really good. The other side of that is that we’re an Irish band and aren’t trying to be a bluegrass band, we are doing crossover music and we’re good at what we do, especially the Irish element.
"The Merlefest audience wouldn’t be familiar with Irish music so they are intrigued by what we do. We play our instruments in a different way than bluegrass musicians, and we also play the tunes in a different way, and we were very well received. It was nerve wracking while we were playing and Sam Bush was standing at the side of the stage watching us and you’re thinking ‘This is not the time to play a bum note’.”
America will continue to be the band’s main focus over the next year or so; “We are fully booked up for the rest of this year and next year is almost completely mapped out as well,” Scahill reveals. “It’s nearly all gigs in America and that’s simply because it is our biggest audience, it is the best funded music market so there is a lot of money to be made there and we are very popular there.
"We have been working successfully in places like Germany and the UK but the ceiling is lower there for what you can earn and you have to tour a lot harder. In a weekend in the States we can earn what would take us two weeks in Germany. We’re still at the lower rungs of the ladder in terms of our potential; we’re very big in a very small niche market but the possibility is to grow out of that into the wider Americana market.
"Americana has become more popular on American radio than a lot of other genres and it taps into the country music sphere which is massive. You have people like Taylor Swift who started out as a country artist but then brought a lot of pop influences into her sound and she has given country a wider appeal, and the same is happening with Americana.”
How do We Banjo 3 find that tricky balance between commercial appeal and artistic integrity? “When you are in front of an audience your job is to entertain them,” Scahill replies. “We’ve always adapted our show to be as entertaining as possible but within that we also have to like what we do. If we only wanted to make money we could be playing bad country music and stay in Ireland and make a very good living from that, or we could have set up as a wedding band and play three or four times a week, but we wouldn’t enjoy either of those options.
"We like the music we play but we have commercialised the show in the sense that we have made it entertaining. We focus very much on what is it the audience wants. They want two hours away from their humdrum lives, they want to be engaged and entertained, to get up and dance and sing along. We can give them that while also enjoying the music we are playing, and maintaining a connection with the Irishness, and bringing in the other influences we enjoy from bluegrass and old time music, and letting all that percolate. Audiences go away thinking that was a great gig, a great Irish band who didn’t try to educate us about Irish music, they weren’t playing inaccessible hardcore trad but brought enough of it to the gig in a way that we can access it and enjoy it. We’re a band on the rise.”
The rising profile of the group will see their next album being recorded in Nashville. “Next year we are going to do our first record label album, our previous albums have all been done independently,” Scahill reveals. “We have a label who’ve been after us for a few years to do an album for them and we have agreed. It will move us into the area where we can be nominated for Grammys and AMA awards. We’ll record the album in Nashville, it will be a concept album very much on the Irish/American crossover theme. Our tour in the States this summer is called ‘A Light in the Western Sky’ and the theme behind that tune is suicide awareness. In Connemara in summertime it never gets entirely dark so there is always a light in the western sky.”
Away from We Banjo 3 duties, Enda’s brother and bandmate Fergal has become something of an internet sensation with his ‘Tune A Day’ series of YouTube performances. “He started that because he found when he was off the road he mightn’t take his fiddle out for two or three weeks so he came up with this scheme so that he would play a tune every day,” Enda explains. “It has captured the imagination of lots of people. He is the first Irish fiddler to do it on Facebook, the tune he did with dancer Emma O’Sullivan had half a million views in 48 hours. Emma will be guesting with us at the Black Box and Ultan Conlon will be the opening act.”
Tickets for the Black Box show are €25 and it is a stand-up gig. Go forth and enjoy!