• A decade of challenge and change in Irish and Irish-American music
Top Irish-American albums of the decade
• Black 47: 'Trouble in the Land'
• Prodigals: 'Needs Must When the Devil Drives'
• Pierce Turner’s '3 Minute World'
• Enter the Haggis: 'Casualties of Retail'
• Dropkick Murphys: 'Blackout'
Top Irish albums of the decade
• U2’s 'All that you can’t Leave Behind'
• Afro Celt Sound System’s 'Volume 3: Further in Time'
• Sinead O’Connor’s 'Throw Down your Arms'
• 'VH1 Presents The Corrs: Live from Dublin'
Black 47 became the musical soundtrack of Irish America in the '90s. With a recent wave of Irish immigrants flooding into New York during the late '80s, a hunger for home drove a new musical genre in the bars of Bainbridge Ave. in the Bronx. Black 47 rose to stardom by combining Irish melodies with gritty hip-hop beats, caustic raps about British rule, and driving riffs swept off the floor at CBGB.
By 2000, the band had seen fame come and go; their MTV 15 minutes of fame had come and gone, founding member Chris Byrne was about to depart, and lead singer Larry Kirwan was running out of gas.
“On a personal level everything seemed to be falling apart,” Kirwan recalls. “ We were still grieving the loss of Johnny Byrne; Hammy’s (drummer Tom Hamlin) apartment had burned down; we had been in a severe van crash on Route 95. My own parents were both ill, my mother would pass away soon after. It seemed like one thing after another, and there was a feeling that a large boulder was perched precariously above us.”
The band used that angst to create the gritty "Trouble in the Land" in 2000. As was the band’s trademark, they touched on a dizzying array of musical influences. “Those Saints” was a Mardi Gras parade, “Desperate” was a swaying reggae cocktail, and “I Got Laid on James Joyce’s Grave” was an injection of snarling punk energy. Their Irishness is front and center on “Bodrhans on the Brain,” a hilarious rocker about Kirwan’s beat-crazy girlfriend that gets wooed by a bodrhan maker. “More power to your elbow!” the girlfriend shouts when Kirwan can’t keep up the pace.
“We were experimenting melding jazz, gospel, funk and other genres with revved up Irish Rock-Trad,” says Kirwan. “There was a general what-the-hell feeling of stretching out, seeing what would happen before the bloody boulder dropped. The highs for me were melding the hip-hop, New Orleans jazz, and Irish Trad influences in "Those Saints," and capturing the biographical ache of the two “ballads” — "Falling Off the Edge of America” and “Tramps Heartbreak.” The latter was about my grandfather, who had raised me. He had been an imposing figure, and to assert myself, I had to cut myself free and leave him behind. There’s always a price to pay for that and it’s summed up well in that song.”
Kirwan was at the mixing board, twirling the knobs on a new Black 47 album, when we asked him to look back on "Trouble in the Land."
When you spun this album for the first time yourself once it was finished, what were your thoughts?
It was a hard album to sequence. It seemed a bit “all over the place.” But I knew the songs were good. We had been doing them live for some time and they were getting a good reaction. On a certain level though, I knew that we were leaving behind many things and that much would never be the same again. I think the album summed up a certain aspect of the Black 47 experience. I remember feeling that the album would stand the test of time. Then I put it away and I’ve never played it since.
What comments do you get from the fans about this album?
I’m always pleased when fans like an album, but I don’t think of trying to please them. I’m more interested in feeling satisfied creatively and of being sure that the band is challenged musically and is sounding good. That being said, people always seem to be surprised by "Trouble." It’s not one of the better-known albums, so perhaps that’s the reason. They often say that it captures a certain moodiness that they identify with. I do remember going to a gig in Boston the same day that the Globe did a big review on "Trouble," and said it was the best thing we’d done. The joint was packed and the bartenders were shoveling drink into us — perhaps that’s the highest endorsement of all.
What is next for the band?
We have a new album, "Bankers and Gangsters" coming out in February. I produced this one myself and think the band sounds the best I’ve heard it in a long time. I knew exactly what I was looking for both sonically and song-wise. In an odd way, it reminds me of "Trouble." But friends have told me it puts them in mind of "Home of the Brave." As long as it can hold its head high in that company, I’ll be fine with it. But it’s its own thing and reflects where the band is at right now, wherever the hell that is!
Log onto www.black47.com to hear their music and find out when they are coming near you!