How It’s New York: Bluegrass and banjo are big in NYC, and the presence of Mick Moloney has mad Irish banjo prevalent too. Dan Neely, who penned this article, learned banjo from Mick.
This week marks the beginning of the Milwaukee Irish Fest! Comprising 100 acts on 16 stages, it is the largest Irish music festival in the United States and features some of the very best trad acts performing today, including Téada, Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch, Liz Carroll with Cormac McCarthy and Robbie Fulks, the Fuschia Band, and Slide, among many others.
This year, Irish Fest will also feature a special tribute to bluegrass music, which means several first-time acts, including Del McCoury, Aoife O’Donovan, the Ebony Hillbillies, Tim O’Brien with Bryan Sutton, and the Punch Brothers.
Among the new acts are a couple of notable crossover groups. One is WeBanjo3, who have a new album out called Roots of the Banjo Tree. Featuring Enda Scahill (banjo, mandolin, tenor guitar), Martin Howley (banjo, mandolin, tenor guitar) and David Howley (banjo, vocals, guitar), WeBanjo3 has a unique banjo-based sound that fuses traditional Irish with American roots musics.
Scahill’s name looms large in the world of Irish banjo. He followed his brilliant solo album Pick It Up with a pair of albums with Paul Brock (including Humdinger and Green Grass Blue Grass) which gilded Scahill’s reputation as one of the world’s finest banjoists. His teaching credentials are formidable (he’s published three renown banjo tutors), and this album builds on his already solid reputation. The two Howley brothers, however, are lesser-known, but this album should help change that. Prodigiously talented, the two make a stunning impact here. Like Scahill, the brothers Howley are brilliant multi-instrumentalists and contribute impressively to each track.
What makes this album different from others is its approach that blends different musical styles which traditionally feature banjo into a new sound. For example, “John Brown/The Lost Indian/Sail Away LadiesAway Ladies” dips into the old time music repertory and is one of the album’s standout tracks. It re-imagines music typically heard on five-string banjo into a fresh tenor-based arrangement. A similarly creative approach is taken on “Bill Cheatum/…”, except it starts off with a bluegrass standard and moves through a selection from the old time repertory, before changing meter and style in a modern trad composition by Brian Finnegan (Flook/Kan).
The album’s opening track, “Martin Wynne’s #2/…” is perhaps the most stunning. It opens with a lilting guitar vamp under which the first tune is played rather straightforwardly. However, when the second tune enters, the arrangement breaks into a tight bluegrass sound, as if played by 5-string banjos. The track’s final tune bursts in with a intricate neotrad arrangement that features some seriously pyrotechnic playing and gives listeners an indication of what’s the album has in store.
In addition to the instrumental numbers, there are several vocal tracks that feature David Howley, the youngest member of the group. David’s voice is brilliantm especially on “Lonesome Road” and “Gonna Write Me A Letter,” and is one of the album’s major assets.
Roots of the Banjo Tree is filled with absolutely virtuosic banjo playing. Scahill and the Howleys are technically sophisticated and stylistically adventuresome in a way rarely heard in Irish music. Although this is an album that the trad police will likely look at with suspicion, it’s one that I think will have great broad appeal in country, bluegrass and old time circles because it blends Irish and American roots music so well. Audiences at the Milwaukee Irish Fest had for a treat.
Another notable act performing at Irish Fest is the Brock McGuire Band (Paul Brock, accordion; Manus McGuire, fiddle; Garry O’Meara, banjo and; Denis Carey, piano).
One of the acts that pioneered the bluegrass/Irish traditional crossover sound, the Brock McGuire Band’s outstanding 2011 release Green Grass Blue Grass included Scahill on banjo as well as such notable bluegrass luminaries as Ricky Scaggs (mandolin), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle) and Bryon Sutton (guitar). An impressive collaboration between masters of several genres, their CD rightly received mighty reviews on its release. Brock and McGuire are two of Irish music’s great masters and were surely one of Irish Fest’s great highlights. For more details about their late summer
and fall U.S. tour, visit brockmcguireband.com.