We're back with Black 47's Larry Kirwan. Check with IrishCentral every second Sunday as we cover the history of the iconic band album by album. You can find the whole series here.
In the coming weeks and months, Kirwan and IrishCentral will look back album by album on the history of Black 47 and their rise to fame. Below is the eighth installment of the series about the recording of "Live in New York City" and whether studio or stage life is better.
But first, an intro from Larry:
People often ask what’s it like to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Well, it’s exhilarating, exhausting, and you’re almost continually in a suspended state of “hurry up and wait.”
With Black 47, we did almost 2,500 gigs in 25 years so it was always on to the next show, the next city, and often, because we were political, the next controversy.
The life never grew old or boring, because you rarely knew what was coming next. We never did the same set twice in all those years, arrangements were there to be stretched; each member came from some kind of improvisatory background so there were always surprises on stage.
You lived life large, there was a constant party going on that you could partake of or bail out on. It was a great life, and because the music biz has so irrevocably changed, it’s gone.
That’s one of the reasons we’re posting these “dispatches from the front,” as it were. They were written soon after each of the Black 47 CDs was recorded. They’re almost like time capsules now. They were written in complete honesty at the time. There are certain predictions and assumptions I made that I’d now disagree with.
But I meant them at the time.
This one was written ten years after Black 47 was formed. And it’s exactly 20 years ago. So, as Prince once said, let’s go back to 1999.
- Larry Kirwan
Read the first seven installments of this series here:
- Black 47 lead singer Larry Kirwan looks back on the band’s history: “Home of the Brave”
- Making Irish republican records when Sinn Féin were still pariahs - The creation of “Black 47”
- Stirring up a "Fire of Freedom" with the Black 47
- Mistakes are easy to spot in hindsight: Larry Kirwan on how Black 47 first dealt with fame
- "The most difficult album I've ever been involved with" - When Black 47's fortunes failed
- Accidental concert shooting and car crashes - Life on the road continues for Black 47
- Capturing the wonder of an Irish boyhood in music
Live in New York City
One of the constant refrains we've gotten over the life of the band is "the CDs are great but there's nothing like the band live."
It can get annoying, at times, until you realize that it would be really bad if the situation was reversed.
Then again, I know that I have said the same thing for three of my favorite performers, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen and The Clash. Their records never seemed to live up to their live shows - for me anyway.
And so, I've accepted, with some humility, what people say. For me, the studio and the stage are two very different mediums. There is a fire that happens on stage when everyone is blazing away. However, that same fire in the studio can cause things to get overblown and out of focus.
One of Black 47's strengths – or weaknesses - is its ability to play in counterpoint. Often, on stage, there will be four to five soloists going at it like the hammers of hell. This can be particularly uplifting - especially when you’re in the audience and looking at the players.
In the studio, however, the same ferocity can be disorienting, as the lack of focus can make everything seem like a big blurry hodge-podge. Therein, lies the difference. In the studio, I'm constantly trying to craft the performance so that the song takes center-stage.
Of course, there's a thin line at work here. In gaining focus, you can lose the fire. But, for me, the song is all-important on the CD. (On stage, it's the performance of the song that counts.) In the studio, I'm trying to fulfill the Yeats' dictum - "that poetry be as cold and passionate as the dawn." In other words, I'm doing my level best to highlight the song so that 10, 20 years from now it will still sound fresh, clear and relevant.
And yet, I know what people mean when they say “there's nothing like Black 47 live.”
One of the first (unspoken) ideals of the band was that you take your mood on stage with you and transmute it into music. Thus, any smiling faces you see us wear are genuine. Sadness, anger, fatigue and frustration can be read openly too. How many times I've come to a gig distracted by some personal or business problem. But, within seconds of those first opening notes, I can feel something take over - the joy of being in a great band, surrounded by very innovative musicians, all pumping out powerful music.
This is not a band you'll become rich in, it doesn't pay health insurance or pensions and we may all end up on the Bowery (and even that's become gentrified) but, every night, we do have the opportunity to break on through to a rare kind of transcendence. That's worth putting up with so many hassles. It's the greatest (perhaps, the only) consideration of being in a top-shelf live band.
We decided to do a live album - and what better day to do it than St. Patrick's Day. It was ideal. We were doing two shows in Wetlands in Tribeca so we would record both and make our choices later. We were already involved in recording a studio CD with Stewart Lerman, so he came aboard as producer/recorder. He sat out in a van on Hudson Street and got it all down on tape as we blasted through almost four hours of material. The atmosphere inside sold-out Wetlands was intense and Live in New York City is - as it was – totally live in New York City.
Was there a spirit hovering over the place? I think so. Our old buddy, Johnny Byrne, had been tragically killed the previous summer, after falling from the fire escape of my old home on 197 E. 3rd St. What made the whole thing ironic was that live recording was Johnny's forte. Johnny was one of nature's gentlemen. Always lending a helping hand to musicians and, indeed, anyone he came in contact with. He loved creativity and would do anything in his power to further it. Didn't matter if he was a part of the creating (although he lived for that) - just as long as it occurred, he was a happy man. We had had a wonderful and reflective time recording Keltic Kids in my home the previous year and things were beginning to look up for Johnny. He had a lot of projects lined up and was ready for the world. Unfortunately, Johnny’s creative life was cut off just as he was getting on a roll.
When Live in New York City, was released, it caused a great stir. It was Black 47 on stage in all its ragged glory. Six musicians with ten years on the road blazing away in front of their hometown audience, egging them on, pulling them back, exhorting them to jump up and down, but look out for the people around them. It's a great document of a night on the town; anytime you want to know what it was like in the New York of the late '90s, put on this CD, close your eyes and you're there!
Mitch Cantor of Gadfly Records released the CD. Oh no, another record company - storm clouds on the horizon at Mercury? Danny Goldberg the president and our champion had been fired and we were caput with him, as were all his signings.
By this point, I was well over any trauma in changing record companies. My one concern with a prospective new home is - what's the distribution like? For a national act like Black 47, that's the one necessity! It's important for us that people can buy, or at least order, the CDs in stores all over the country - notwithstanding the many beneficial changes that the internet has afforded us all. For to me, if your CDs are not available in stores nationwide, you're operating on a purely local basis. That's not to suggest that that's such an awful thing for bands seeking to establish themselves, but I would see it as a disaster for Black 47.
For the uninitiated, record companies can provide you with three main services, if you're lucky and they're doing their job. Distribution, publicity and radio play. Now Black 47, by its very nature, has never had any problem getting publicity; and it appears that not even the Almighty can guarantee you radio play anymore. (A case in point, while at Mercury one day, I was complaining about having to make phone calls to radio stations - the radio promoter merely opened the door and said "listen!" I could hear a strident voice booming down the corridor. "That's that little prick, John Mellencamp, doing exactly what you're doing and batting roughly the same average.")
That leaves just one area of concern - can people buy the bloody CD as effortlessly as they can a Britney Spears or Ricky Martin or whomever the gods are these days? All of our CDs are available nationally, if spottily in some areas. They sell constantly in every state and none have been deleted. In this day and age of disposable music, that is a particular achievement and thank you, the reader, for helping us achieve that goal.
Do you have any photos of going to see Black 47 or any memories of their shows that you'd like to share with us? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Black 47" in the subject and we'll include them in Larry Kirwan's collected history.
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