The French poet Jean Cocteau said, “Americans are funny people. First you shock them, then they put you in a museum.”
Nowadays, you can’t swing a cat at an Irish festival without hearing some band doing their best to blend traditional Irish melodies with bone crunching power chords nowadays.
For some of our younger readers the idea of mixing traditional Irish melodies with rock and rap would be considered dangerous, but I really thought the world was coming to an end when I first saw Black 47 in the Village almost two decades ago.
I first remember being assaulted by their music back in 1990. I just came from a cousin’s wedding in Galway, and everyone was mad for this new band called the Saw Doctors. I was thrilled when I heard Black 47 were coming to the Big Apple, and got their nice and early to soak in the soda bread sounds of home.
With a screech of feedback, Larry Kirwan, an impish redhead, hurtled toward the audience, guitar in hand, provoking the crowd, while Chris Byrne, a Times Square cop, hunched over uilleann pipes that screamed over the urban beats.
Before my eyes (and ears), the music of my heritage was shot through a grinder of rock, reggae and rap and transformed into a product uniquely Irish American.
With surgical precision, they sliced the British establishment in lyrics that were sung, rapped and spat about the likes of Michael Collins and Bobby Sands, translating the history of our heritage in an urban language I could understand. My life has never been the same since.
We haven’t gotten around to making a national Irish American museum yet, but once it is built there must be a Black 47 exhibit. Unlike other musical museum pieces like McCartney and Jagger, who trot around their musty warhorses in stadiums, Kirwan and the lads are as vibrant as ever.
They have released one of their best albums, Bankers and Gangsters, expanding on the formula of sharp social commentary and genre-bending sounds. Kirwan is touring bookstores as well, reading passages from his gritty story about Irish Americans in the Eighties called Rockin’ the Bronx.
He still hosts the wildly popular Celtic Crush on Sirius XM, and if that weren’t enough he is workshopping a new musical at the Irish Arts Center this weekend.
Kirwan is a man always looking forward, so it is rare indeed that he would stop to celebrate an anniversary.
“The owners of Paddy Reilly's have been asking us to do a one-off reunion there for some years now,” explains Kirwan of the band’s 20th anniversary show on May 7 (Paddy Reilly’s is at 519 Second Avenue) at the bar that gave birth to this legendary live act.
“There's always been something in the way, but we are on a bit of a break to allow everyone in the band to do their own thing for a while when I got a call from the producers of a Horslips documentary.
“The Horslips doc is about the emigration story of a Gaelic speaking guy who traveled from New York City to the Yukon, and they want to get footage of us playing in New York and along with some footage of the old Irish areas like Bainbridge/Kingsbridge as featured in Rockin' The Bronx. They were going to be filming in Reilly's anyway, so we decided to kill two birds as it were.”
Irish American rock might not shock anyone now, but I am still in shock that I’ve been following the band around for 20 years! Happy anniversary!
I spoke with Kirwan over the weekend about the many moving parts of the man and the band. Here’s how it went.
What kind of show can fans expect at the 20th anniversary gig?
As regards the kind of show we'll do, I would imagine that we'll perform a lot of the old songs from the nineties, ones that we first played in Reilly's on those adrenalized sweat-soaked nights. There was an intensity back then because many people were refusing to accept the type of music that the band was creating. It was very defiant and aggressive.
I don't think we've ever really lost that. We just came through five years of playing songs about Iraq, not everyone's favorite topic. So we don't have to reach too far back to re-capture the attitude, which is always the basis of great rock and roll.
And we'll do some songs from Bankers and Gangsters to bring us right up to the present. Musically, I don't think the band has ever sounded better. Should be a blast!
Are there any surprise guests planned?
Surprise guests -- who knows? But Jim Lockhart and Barry Devlin of Horslips will definitely sit in. Black 47 will be playing a Horslips song for this documentary, probably “Wrath of the Rain” or “Speed the Plough.” That should be interesting.
We very rarely do other people's material -- a bit of Dylan, Marley, Strummer -- but it will be fun to give a B47 interpretation of Horslips. And they're such great guys. Jim is a particularly under-rated keyboard player, and Barry is that voice of seventies Ireland.
What advice would you give the Larry Kirwan who played Paddy Reilly’s back in May 1990?
Musically, artistically, I don't think there's anything I'd do differently.
When we last spoke, you were about to release the new CD, Bankers and Gangsters. What has been the reaction from the fans now that they have had a chance to listen to it on record and on stage?
Critics and fans are calling it our best album since Fire of Freedom, Home of the Brave or Green Suede Shoes. I don't know -- to me, the songs have been top shelf all along and we've done our best on every album, but I really like the sound of this one.
Sometimes you know just exactly how you want something to sound, and we succeeded this time. A number of people seem to like the fact that we've gone back to the "Black 47 formula." That is, some political, some humorous, some songs of regret, some songs of relationships, etc.
You also released a novel, Rockin’ the Bronx, which paints the picture of the Irish American scene in the eighties. How do you think the scene has changed since then?
A lot of things have changed since the eighties. Rockin' the Bronx is set between 1980-82. New York City changed dramatically at the end of '82. AIDS was finally identified and people began taking Ronald Reagan seriously.
I always maintain that the sixties lasted until 1982. The city was much more lawless through the eighties. It was possible to live very cheaply in New York back then. Thus people had time to go out at nights, socialize much more and be in bars.
From our inception in late 1989, Black 47 was playing three to five nights a week. We did our rehearsing onstage and we became tight within the first months -- also fearless.
Within six months we were playing pretty much all original music and taking it into bars where before they'd only previously heard cover bands. Your own songs had better be top-of-the-line and distinctive if you're going to do that.
You can't play five nights a week anymore so bands can't take that risk. Consequently bands can't develop their own material because they're constantly falling back on popular songs by other artists.
You're got to develop your own sound -- there's only one Pogues, one Dropkick Murphys, one Flogging Molly and one Black 47. If you're going to be yourselves, then you should drop everyone else's song no matter how popular. You'll suffer for it, but it's the only way to make it.
You also have a new musical coming out. Tell us about how Transport came about?
For over 10 years Tom Keneally and I have been working on Transport, a musical based on his wife's great-grandmother who was sentenced to penal servitude in Australia back in 1838 for stealing a bolt of cloth.
Transport tells the tale of four such women on a convict ship during their voyage from Cork to Botany Bay. Tom is a great storyteller and one of the few men who can really create and bring to life women characters.
My job was to turn this story into music and song. I would say that the music is a mix between Irish trad and Broadway show tunes, if you can imagine such a dichotomy. We'll workshop it for five days and then put it up onstage at the Irish Arts Center (553 West 51st Street), Friday, April 30, Saturday, May 1 and Sunday the 2nd. Tony Walton is directing and Aidan Connolly and his team at the Irish Arts Center are very much behind it.
It will be a great opportunity for people to see the birth of a large scale musical in a very intimate setting.
Log onto www.black47.com for more information.