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Celtic rock band Black 47 announce plans to call it a day

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Larry Kirwan of Black 47.
Larry Kirwan of Black 47.

Black 47 has been an institution in New York for almost a quarter century, single-handedly creating an Irish American music scene where there was none.

For many, like myself, the band spoon fed us our Irish culture and history atop power chords and block rockin’ beats along the way.

Now, the band itself will become history. Founder Larry Kirwan has decided it’s “last call” for the band within the next 12 months as the band tours behind their new album, Last Call.

There won’t be any Behind the Music documentaries about the disbanding of his band because of ill-will, according to Kirwan.

“There's perfect harmony in the band, no rows or personality problems.  We just decided that we'll have played exactly 25 years, the band is sounding great right now and why not go out at the top of our game playing new material. I felt it was the right time, and when I spoke with the band they felt the same way,” he said.

Kirwan was readying a new compilation CD, Rise Up, which are more political songs. As soon as he came up with the idea of disbanding in 2014, a gush of new music flowed out of him.

“I hadn’t written anything for the band in a couple of years,” he says. "Then I wrote 10 songs in three weeks. I could hardly stop it! A lot of the songs are organic, very up, very New York, which would highlight the band a bit more.

“I wanted to make a more bluesy, driven Black 47 sound and then it just really flowed. After five songs, it was like, f*** it, let’s go all the way and do an album!”

Black 47‘s sound has been unclassifiable. A typical live set would touch on the fury of punk, the melody of Irish trad, and the occasional lick of reggae for good measure.

Kirwan hopes to bring that same diversity to the Last Call, as it would be the ultimate tribute to his adopted city.

“New York was never a place that had this precise sound,” Kirwan says. “Detroit sound has its stamp. New York musicians don’t have that, and we have always explored what it sounds like to be a band on this island.

“So, we have this slap-happy feel to it where it would not be uncommon to have salsa, klezmer and jazz in the same set.”

Kirwan is mindful of the impact that stepping away will have on the Black 47 community, with fans meeting in groups and planning their travel to coincide with the band’s gigs on both sides of the Atlantic. He hopes the long goodbye will give everyone a chance to see the band.

Because of the rabid following the band draws, Kirwan thought it best to give the fans  at least 12 months notice.

“People will see when we’re playing and then they make plans to travel to where we are and make a weekend out of being in New York or whatever city we’re playing,” he says. “It’s a year away and I want to give everyone the chance to see the band if they want to.”

This writer has seen this coming. Kirwan is so busy with a weekly newspaper column, producing Sirius Celtic Crush radio shows, book and play writing, soundtracks, musical theater production and solo touring.

It would seem as though Kirwan has diversified in an attempt to gracefully step away from the rigors of touring. Not so, according to himself!

“Black 47 is always a positive thing,” he insists. “I’ve always written music inside and outside the band. Black 47 is this magic place where there are five other guys to get energy from. So, Black 47 was always liberating, not limiting.

“Yes, getting in a van and driving 400 miles can be draining, but we always had a great time in the van and then you had a great time onstage and then you get back in the van. Even in the most stressful times it was a comforting place to be.”

Once I was done holding my breath until my face turned blue, Kirwan reluctantly handed over a rough draft of his new book, tentatively titled Celtic Crush.

I’m about a third of the way through it and it is a delightful read that blends Irish musical history with notes in the margins from a music fan that was there for most of it. Of course, Kirwan’s razor wit keeps each page sharp and tart!

“I drew from my friendships I have with the likes of Horslips and knowing them.  I knew their roots, and seeing them come over here and how they integrated American music into their sound,” he says.

“I had a good seat as watching these trends emerge. I mean, I saw Van Halen open for Horslips in the Palladium. I think Rory Gallagher was the one thing we had that was ours and better than everyone else’s. I remember that and I explored my feelings about that. In that reflection, I think a lot of the music I wrote for this album came out of the experience writing the book.”

Recalling his life and the impact music had on it gave Kirwan a new appreciation for the melodies that inspired him to get into the rock and roll business.

“I went back to the music I first heard while in Wexford and putting it against the fact that all Irish music was affected by the Troubles in the North, what it was like to feel the American influence once you came over, Irish and American music as I saw it,” he continues.

“I can hear in the cadence of Van Morrison the hymns that I remember hearing from the Pentecostal churches when my uncle took me to Belfast.”

The book firmly in the horizon, Kirwan prefers to think in the here and now. There is an album to record, a farewell tour to plan.

“It's been an amazing run,” Kirwan says.

“Looking back, the career of the band is almost a mirror of Irish America in particular and America in general. From the early Irish political days with the Guildford Four and Joe Doherty campaigns through 9/11, Iraq War, financial collapse.  I’m not sure how I will feel when it all ends but I’m feeling great about meeting our old friends on the road for one last call!”

New Jersey will get their first shot at a “last call” with the band at the Red Bank Oyster Festival on the 22nd, the Jersey City Irish Festival on 28th, and Johnny Mac’s in Asbury Park on October 13. For a full schedule, visit www.black47.com

Here's Black 47 singing "Funky Ceili":

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