We Banjo 3 — Riverside Theater, Milwaukee, WI 3/12/2022 Written and photographed by Brooke Billick
We Banjo 3 Receives a Hometown-Style Welcome in Milwaukee
Embracing the Crowd with “Celtgrass”
What’s in a label? How do you define boundaries between diverse musical categories? Sometimes it’s not possible. And, perhaps, why bother, especially when the music you hear brings you joy and lifts your heart and spirit to a new place?
Often the influences of different musical origins and styles on a performer’s music can become so intertwined that it’s impossible to decide which label or genre applies.
The confluence of musical elements led to the genesis of Americana, which is typically defined as a blend of various American roots music styles, such as roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, country, R&B, and blues.
We Banjo 3 is distinctly a genre-busting band. Or perhaps better described as a genre-defining band. Combining traditional Irish folk music with bluegrass and Americana, We Banjo 3 has developed their own style that they term “Celtgrass.” The result is a high-energy fusion of solid string instrumentals and introspective lyrics that envelop their fanbase into a massive worldwide family
We Banjo 3 brought Celtgrass to Milwaukee on March 12 as part of their Awakening tour. This was the band’s first appearance in Milwaukee since August 2019. A scheduled concert during March 2020 was cancelled at the last minute at the beginning of the sweep of cancellations due to Covid.
The fans at Riverside welcomed the band like long lost prodigal sons!
We Banjo 3 is comprised of two sets of brothers, David and Martin Howley and Enda and Fergal Scahill. Originally hailing from Galway, Ireland, each had successful solo careers before teaming up as a band. Each member has achieved multiple accolades and awards. The band has released 7 albums in their 13-year history, including 2 live albums and an album of Christmas holiday music.
Enda Scahill (tenor banjo and vocals), the band’s founder, is a four-time Irish national champion on the banjo and mandolin. He has recorded with Ricky Skaggs and guested with Irish legends, The Chieftains. Martin Howley (tenor banjo, mandolin, and vocals), holds 7 “All Ireland” titles and was the first Irish banjo player to play at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
Fergal Scahill (fiddle, viola, dobro, bodhran, guitar and vocals), is a world-renowned fiddler playing on over 40 albums and appearing in 30 countries with numerous bands. Finally, David Howley (lead vocals and guitar), who currently lives in Nashville, has won multiple national titles on the guitar and banjo.
Both Martin and David Howley said that Milwaukee is like a second home to the band. David recounted the nervousness of the band when they made their first US appearance at Milwaukee’s Irish Fest in 2012. They returned to Irish Fest each year through 2019 and appeared virtually at Irish Fest at Home in 2020.
We Banjo 3 opened their set with “Good,” beginning with extended banjo and fiddle instrumentals—kind of like warming up the fingers.
After recognizing the despair of the people of Ukraine suffering from the Russian invasion, the band launched into “Haven,” beginning with the plea to “lay down your weapons, lay down with me.”
The band’s songs range from sweetly wistful to all out rollicking with the band literally jumping around on the stage as they interacted with the audience.
Each member of the band highlighted his personal instrumental wizardry during the concert with extended solos and jams. Enda Scahill is an absolute wizard on the banjo with his fingers flying across the strings through “Wynnes.”
Fergal Scahill, certainly the most colorful member of the band in his bright red suit, proved why he is consistently a crowd favorite jamming on his bodhran and engaging with the audience.
Following Fergal Scahill’s lead on the fiddle, and with David saying he’d been waiting for 2 years to sing this, the band transitioned into “Little Liza Jane” with “I got a friend in Mil-wau-kee, Little Liza Jane.”
David relayed to the audience the sadness of driving back to Nashville in March 2020 after their last Milwaukee show was cancelled due to Covid.
Rather than sitting around idly, though, he said the band used the hiatus as an opportunity to craft new music, which will appear on a forthcoming album.
The show highlighted many of their new songs, all of which were enthusiastically embraced by the crowd.
Several times during the show, David called out to the crowd to join in singing choruses and, at one point, held an impromptu dance contest.
Harking back to the band’s Irish roots, members of the Milwaukee-based Glencastle Irish Dancers troupe joined the band onstage for three of their songs and displayed their high-kicking skills.
At one poignant moment in the show, David Howley dedicated a song to the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, a choreographed dance and pompom parade group who tragically lost three members and the husband of a fourth during a December 2021 Christmas parade when a truck intentionally drove through the parade killing six people and injuring 60.
We Banjo 3’s messages are about empathy, love, and hope. Their music evokes a kind of palliative spirit in an emotional sense by easing the listener’s cares and concerns. We Banjo 3’s music is joyful and envelopes their fans within a community of loving and caring.
The act of song writing and performing has helped the band members deal with their own internal demons. David Howley has openly acknowledged his battles with depression and anxiety over the years and how the creative process of song writing has helped.
This is most evident during the song “Don’t Let Me Down,” a sweet but desperate cry for help that led off the band’s encore.
“Don’t leave me on the cold, hard ground
You’re all I want if I could only fix my heart
You’re all I need, ’cause you’re my missing part”
The crowd readily answered the call to join in singing the chorus when David said, “having everyone sing certainly makes me happy!”
The band ended their set with “The Fox,” a rollicking sendoff for the audience who were so happy to be reunited with the lads in WB3 after such a long two-year absence.
Chicken Wire Empire Opener
Local bluegrass favorite, Chicken Wire Empire, opened for We Banjo 3. Formed by Jordan Kroeger (upright bass), and Ryan Ogburn (mandolin), and currently including Jon Peik (banjo), Ernest Brusubardis IV (fiddle), and Greg Brundage (guitar), Chicken Wire Empire has been a regular at bluegrass festivals throughout the country and internationally.
Originally formed as a traditional bluegrass band, their music has evolved into high-energy progressive jamgrass, featuring extended jams. The band has released 4 albums over its history, including the 2 volume “Live from Deutschland” chronicling their November 2019 tour of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland as part of a European Bluegrass Jamboree.
CWE launched into their set immediately showing off their skills and amply warming up the crowd, with songs like “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens” and “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.”
https://www.chickenwireempire.com (check out their new album here: REVIEW: Chris Castino & Chicken Wire Empire “Fresh Pickles”)
We Banjo 3–A Guaranteed Heartwarming Experience
Experiencing We Banjo 3 in concert reminds us why we should and do care about others. You go to a place where you realize personal issues may not be so insurmountable. There are others who care about you and want to help. You become part of a joyful and loving community. That’s such a sweet place to be.
We Banjo 3’s national tour picks up again on April 23 at the Old Settlers Music Festival in Dale, Texas. For a complete list of their spring tour dates, click this link: https://www.webanjo3.com The band will once again be in Milwaukee for Irish Fest on August 18-21.
We Banjo 3—Riverside Theater—Milwaukee
3/12/2022 Set List
Tell Me Why (Gather the Good)
Little Liza Jane
Don’t Let Me Down