For over two decades, Chris Byrne has been shaking things up while shaking it up on the dance floor, and his new album with Seanchai, Shantytown, is no exception.
The history lesson starts on the liner notes. “Few people today associate the globalized Shantytown, wherein one-sixth of the world’s population currently lives in subhuman misery, with the Irish people,” the writer Michael Patrick MacDonald says in the album’s liner notes.
“Fewer people recognize that the world shanty itself come from the seitious Irish tongue ‘sean tigh’ or “old house.”
As a founding member of Black 47, Byrne revolutionized Irish music by blending block rockin’ beats, uilleann pipes and social commentary about the troubles on both sides of the Atlantic. He continues that trailblazing path on his new album. ------------------- Read more: More music news from IrishCentral
The track is in sharp contrast to “Rebel Heart,” a mournful track anchored by nothing more than a gut-wrenching uilleann pipe melody that conjures up images of a funeral Mass.
“We’ve been doing a gig every year with the Transit Workers Union,” Byrne explains. “You could make a good argument that if there was no IRA there would be no TWU. I never heard them recognized in song, so that’s why I wrote ‘Rebel Heart.’
“It took the genius of an Irish guy like Mike Quill to hatch the idea of holding the city ransom by putting a stop to the transit. The TWU was the gateway for a lot of Irish Americans to move into the middle class -- I know that was the case for myself and my family.
“We play the James Connolly/Mike Quill commemoration for the TWU each year. Even though there aren’t as many Irish in the TWU, they still have this every year. Those roots run deep.”
In a first for the band, they put a few cover versions on Shantytown. Rachel Fitzgerald’s sweet soda bread voice and the gentle acoustic tapestry woven behind her transform Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset,” while Byrne tips his hat to the Boss with a straight-ahead read of Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets.”
Seanchai's new CD
“I have always been a huge fan of Springsteen and I hear a lot of Irishness and Catholicism in his songs,” Byrne says when asked to explain the inclusion of that song.
“Based on my background it’s the same as covering Phil Coulter’s ‘Town I Love So Well.’ And Rachel just nailed ‘Waterloo Sunset.’
“The Kinks is the most underrated band of all time. Ray Davies is the best songwriter ever and I never understood why he never got that credit. Everyone goes on and on about the other big British rock bands of the sixties, and I never thought the man got his full due.”
Working behind the bar at Rocky Sullivan’s in Brooklyn has its advantages, for it gives the songwriter a bird’s eye view of humanity. ------------------- Read more: More music news from IrishCentral
Big Brother really is watching --Irish tourist nabbed by US Government due to algorithm ------------------- On “Band of Brothers,” Byrne tells the story of war veterans convening over a jar. “Best left unsaid/cold sweats and nightmares/tonight we drink the Hudson dry/we gather round/this gang of ours/the stories fly across the bar/remember when?/how about the time?/Like Johnny Cash/we walk the line/a toast to those not here tonight,” Byrne sings over a vaguely calypso rock arrangement.
“I do just as much observing at the drinking side of the bar as well,” Byrne says with a laugh.
“That song came about when I went to a retirement party for one of the cops. It could just have easily been written for Con Ed folks. Now I see that song being adopted by the veterans, which is great.
“It’s really just a song about a group of guys getting together to reminisce about everything they’ve been through.”
Of course, the name of the band is a tip o’ the hat to the Irish seanchai story traditions, and the songs on Shantytown are rich with stories about love, city life, memories, and of course, rebellion.
Byrne is trying to keep that tradition alive at Rocky Sullivan’s his bar in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn (34 Van Dyke Street at Dwight Street 718-246-8050 http://www.rockysullivansredhook.com/).
At any given night, you can drop in to catch a trad session, Byrne’s full band on a Saturday, a Gaelic night or a book signing (I will be there hawking my book, This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks, on March 10).
Alas, his pub might be the last of a dying breed because the art of Irish storytelling might be eroding in Manhattan.
“I’m an exile in Red Hook, but when I go into the city it just seems like everyone in the bar has their head in text message now,” he laments.
“I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say the few words in a text message aren’t as interesting as a good old fashioned conversation. We lose something in our culture because of that.”
Seanchai’s modus operandi has always been about telling stories outside of the traditional Irish setting, which explains why each track borrows from a different genre of music.
“One of the advantages of not being tied to the industry is that you can really do whatever you want with your music,” Byrne says. “You’re not making any money anyway -- no one in the music business is. When you chase the ‘Big Mac’ in your music it ties you down artistically.”
The formidable musical chops of the band, which include Fitzgerald (vocals), Jason Goodrow (guitar), Andrew Harkin (bass, Irish bouzouki), Eamon Ellams (drums), Willie Martinez (vocals, percussion), and Black 47’s Thomas Hamlin (drums in some spots) drive the music through just about every corner of the world.
“I would credit the band for their ability to switch gears like we do,” Byrne says. “We have people with such different backgrounds. I saw this Garth Brooks interview and he said he loves when he knows he’s the worst musician onstage. I feel similar. I am the worst musician up here and that’s good.”
While Byrne is proud of the new album, he is loathe to actively hawk it and prefers word-of-mouth to get his music out there.
“I don’t think people buy a lot of CDs anymore, to be honest,” he says. “I get a lot of emails after people download it onto iTunes. I’m not a good salesperson so I don’t ever go out there to sell it. Three to four releases ago I was more hyped for it. We tend to move our CDs at the gigs.”
Byrne has always used Rocky Sullivan’s as an experiment for his musical meanderings, and 2012 is no exception.
“We have been doing live acoustic gigs lately,” he says. “We haven’t done the rock and roll thing for a month so now we are going to bring the whole band in every Saturday in February and into March leading up to St. Patrick’s Day.”
He says that Fitzgerald and Harkin have formed a new offshoot that they are calling the Lost Tribe of Donegal, a trad outfit he says has been using the Red Hook remoteness to their advantage.
“Andrew and I play three or four nights for three years here in the pub and now we’re ready to take it out,” Byrne says.
“Andrew is amazing on bass, of course, but he is also doing some really great work acoustically on the bouzouki. It’s fairly unique. Just me and him. No one drops in with a fiddle when you’re out in Red Hook -- it’s like we are in a remote parish of Ireland.”
“I am interested to see what will come of it,” Byrne says when asked if the new group will cut a new album. “We are working on things. Some of the ballads will be original, then some of the faster stuff will be unique to southern Donegal, where my parents are from. Andrew’s parents grew up four miles away from mine and then both sets of parents came to Brooklyn.”
It might take a few trains or buses to get there, but the smorgasbord of culture served at Rocky Sullivan’s (along with great pints and pizza that makes the Italians in the neighborhood jealous) makes it worth the trip.
As for the new album, there is nothing shanty about Shantytown -- just great music played by the best in the business!