“I always resisted being pigeonholed and limited to this genre. But what the hell, it just won’t go away and I suppose we have a lot to be responsible for in popularizing it. Like every other original idea it inevitably becomes a victim of its own clichés. This is what it looks like from the stage with a couple of shots aboard; now let’s take it to the cleaners.”
Larry Kirwan might be talking about the origins of “Celtic Rocker,” one of the many instant classics on Black 47’s new Bankers and Gangsters album, but it is typical of him to give that nonchalant, self-deprecating wink to his long legacy and cultural impact on Irish Americana.
Bankers and Gangsters opens majestically with “Long Hot Summer Comin’ On,” a rock and roll novella about the CBGB scene in the eighties where Kirwan had a ringside seat. It is a character-driven ditty with characters like arsonist Gasoline Gomez, “whose got kerosene in his soul.”
The record is the first since IRAQ, the band’s politically charged disc that offered scathing criticism of the war and heartbreaking accounts from fans fighting on the front lines. Kirwan says he felt pressure to get the story straight on that record, which freed him up creatively to write different stories for the band’s current work.
“IRAQ was such a focused record,” Kirwan says. “I wanted to capture the feeling of the country so that if you went back and listened to the album 10 years from now, you would get a feeling for what our national mood was at the time.
“When that was done, it gave me the freedom to go wherever I wanted to. There are a lot more pipes and brass in this album on purpose because musically, I wanted to focus on the strengths of this great band I have working behind me. You are playing with these great musicians and I wanted to have them shine.
“Not many people mix the brass and uilleann pipes the way we do, and when you are focused on the guitars or words you might miss this onstage. For this CD, I wanted what I heard onstage to be front and center.”
The band flexes their formidable musical muscles throughout the disc, most notably on “Izzy’s Irish Rose,” a hilarious tale of interfaith temptations that finds the band juggling both Irish reels with snippets of “Hava Nagila” without missing a beat.
The band is capable of whipping up whiplash for the listener as they swerve from rock to reels to reggae in a dizzying mixture of Irish and American influences, Celtic rebellion, domestic heartache and furious reels. Kirwan and the Boys have made another winner!
Any good mix of Black 47 songs would not be complete without a nod to Irish history, and Bankers and Gangsters keeps the memories of Rosemary Nelson and Red Hugh.
“He was my boyhood hero but I could never capture him in song up until now,” Kirwan explains. “His days were just far too distant.
“And then I became intrigued with Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and it all clicked. Both were fundamentalists, battling much stronger armies on the borders of great empires, with time running out and modernity is encroaching.
“We do issues songs but we don’t ram it down your throat,” Kirwan says of the band’s political oeuvre.
“If you don’t like the issues songs, go to the bar and wait for the fast and lively reels. We play over two hours and if you came out to be informed or to be entertained, there will be a spot in the set list for you.”
Kirwan has been looking back on his youth a lot recently, and the songs on the new CD are not the only evidence. Kirwan will also release Rockin’ the Bronx, a brilliant tale set in the gritty streets of the Yankee borough that was the epicenter of Irish Americana during the early eighties.
“The book is about what it was like to be an Irish immigrant on 204 and Bainbridge during that time. I used to live in the East Village and play the Bronx at night. Everyone was Irish up there, and I would go home to the Puerto Rican drug dealers downtown,” he recalls.
“ The Irish Echo and Irish Voice wrote about games at Gaelic Park, but other than Terry George (Irish Voice), no one wrote about the scene I was in. A lot of Irish Americans don’t know about it, yet it was the center of life for the Irish American culture that we still have today, this scene.
“‘Living in America’ and the song ‘Rockin’ the Bronx’ approaches a description, but a song can only take it so far. I wanted a novel to describe it on another level, really give people a sense for the fabric of what the sheer wildness was.
“You get off the plane on a Friday, got a job by Monday, worked all week, spent it in the pub on a Friday night and went to work broke on Monday again. That’s what it was like to be Irish American at the time.”
As the Irish American rock scene was hatching, another musical genre was gestating a few miles away. Kirwan recalls going back and forth between the Bronx and CBGB’s to watch the birth of punk rock.
“I was dealing with this particular period of time from 1980 to 1982 in New York City in the book,” he explains. “I was there the first night the Ramones came on, and this English bartender I knew thought they were fascists in their yellow jackets,
“I said, ‘You know, I think they might be Jewish!’ It was a classic time, seeing Television and Blondie there, and it breaks my heart to see it’s a f***ing clothes store now.”
The band keeps it fresh by trying out new things. For Bankers and Gangsters they brought a slew of Irish singers from Celtic Cross and Screaming Orphans to give the backing vocals an earthy feel.
Celtic Cross lead singer Kathleen Fee is the feisty foil to Kirwan’s curmudgeon during “The Wedding Reel,” a furious country-tinged rocker and hilariously caustic tale of marital tension between two disparate spirits. “ I bet you didn’t notice the highlights in me hair/they weren’t put in for you to pay attention anyway,” she snarls to her husband as she applies the war paint in the mirror to hunt for new prey at the bar, the husband more concerned with pints than passion.
“The song I fashioned around it is a tribute to the Irish countrywoman’s spirit and the banter I used to hear while picking fruit every summer on the farms of south county Wexford,” Kirwan explains.
“I didn’t have to explain the saucy sexuality of the woman to Ms. Fee. She stepped right into that character.
“There are really some inherently funny scenes in Irish romances. There is an edge in most romances, but there is a particular set of barriers where these poor women have to go an extra mile to break the Irish man down a bit, and I like writing about the dynamic. It is comedy with an edge.
“She is going out to look for a younger man and if I don’t find him, I will come home and the man is saying ‘off with you.’ But you know in the end, they are going to end up with one another and they will be fighting with one another into the moonlight.”
For Fee, recording with Kirwan and the band was a thrill.
“We both happened to be at the Catskills and we were having a drink at the Blackthorn and he told me how he wrote the song and how perfect he thought I would be for it. I was flattered to say the least!” she says.
“He is such a pleasure to work with. He gave me complete creative control and encouraged me to improvise. He sees things and hears things and knows exactly what he wants, yet he is open to surprises and new ideas.
“The back and forth was complexly improvisational. He doesn’t over-think it. The deliveries that come naturally really work and I am going to try that out on the new Celtic Cross album!
While Bankers and Gangsters looks fondly at the past, Kirwan is already looking at the future with a musical and more Black 47 music in the future. As Kirwan sees it, challenging the band and its fans with new material is essential to a band’s survival during these dicey times in the music business.
“You have to come out with something new all the time because you have to keep the band fresh onstage,” he says. “You introduce the new song every night to keep the edge.”
Copies of Bankers and Gangsters are available at Black47.com or at band gigs like February 19 at Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, or the following night at Connolly's in New York.