Black 47's "Last Call" saw the iconic Irish band come to an end after 25 years
Editor's Note: In the coming weeks, Larry Kirwan and IrishCentral will look back album by album on the history of Black 47 and their rise to fame. Below is the seventeenth installment of the series about the group's album "Last Call," released in 2014.
The previous installment in the series, "'One hell of a compilation' - Larry Kirwan's Celtic Invasion," can be read here.
Below is a note from Larry Kirwan, written June 27, 2020:
People continue to ask me if we made the right decision to disband Black 47 back in Nov. 2014. Of course, we did, we went out when we were ahead. Being a boxing fan I always knew that would be the right call. My one regret is that there has been little musical resistance to the incompetence, corruption, and general ignorance of the present administration. However, we did release one last compilation of political music – RISE UP – and in our final IrishCentral piece in a couple of weeks, we’ll deal with that call to the barricades. - Larry Kirwan
Last Call Tracklisting
- "Salsa O’Keefe"
- "Culchie Prince"
- "Dublin Days"
- "U S Of A 2014"
- "The Night The Showbands Died"
- "Johnny Comes A'Courtin"
- "Let The People In"
- "Lament For John Kuhlman"
- "St. Patrick's Day"
- "Queen Of Coney Island"
- "Shanty Irish Baby"
- "Ballad Of Brendan Behan"
- "Hard Times"
Salsa O'Keefe by Black 47
The below was written by Larry Kirwan on February 16, 2014:
We were at the South Buffalo Irish Festival in early September 2013 when the thought struck me. South Buffalo, like many of the south sides across the US, is Black 47 country. It’s a working/middle-class community where you don’t have to explain either the band Black 47 or what the name stands for – we’re part of the oxygen in those areas. The crowd was waiting for us and we were ready for them. Each song we played meant something special and when we blazed through a particular all-around favorite such as Fanatic Heart, Fire of Freedom, or James Connolly, you could feel the emotions and the idealism, the memories, and the aspirations meld together until the whole place was one big swirl of something way beyond all of us. During one of those moments, the thought struck me. Will it ever get any better? And I knew it could – but by mere centimeters. Maybe this was the time to call it a day – go out when the band was on top of its game.
It was such a strange feeling. I’d never had it before. And yet, I’d always wondered – how would Black 47 end? And would I know the time was right? I’ve always loved Buffalo. It’s a music city – the people know their stuff - and so I didn’t leave the festival grounds when our show was over. There were so many people to talk to, so many fans to hug, so many political comrades to exchange opinions, and reaffirm solidarity, with. It was late before I got back to the hotel room. Still, the idea wouldn’t go away. Eventually, I dozed, but it was there again first thing in the morning and, as we got into the van for the 6-hour journey to NYC, it still itched deep down. All the way home on that sunny afternoon, as we sped through the familiarity of upstate New York and Pennsylvania, I thought of it, and it held its grip on me over the next couple of weeks.
And so I began to make the calls. Some band members were more surprised than others but I guess there was something in the air. The music business was contracting and had become a weekend affair. Gone are the days you could play six good nights a week on a cross country tour; now you’re likely to lose money on three of them as most people only go out Thursday through Saturday - and where’s that at?
And so, a consensus was arrived at – let’s finish up at 25 years exactly, which would take us up to Nov. 2014, record a new album so we’d go out playing new material, and cast our fate to the wind. Some were more in favor of the move than others, but it was felt that the 14 months would give everyone time to figure out what to do next - if it was only that simple.
From the moment we made the announcement we were on a merry-go-round of gigs, tours, recordings, goodbyes, and I know that in my own case I had no plans of any sort made by the time we got to the final week in early Nov. 2014. For a band is not just the six members; there’s the technical crew, agency, publicist, and the many fans who had become more than mere audience members – they were friends as invested in Black 47 as we were. Right from our first nights in the Bronx, for better or worse, Chris Byrne and I had demolished the fourth wall between ourselves and the audience. Black 47 was a family, a feeling, a way of looking back at the past while dealing with the present. We were Black 47! It was more than a name – it was a movement.
We were the radical heart of Irish-America. Way back in 1990, Paul Hill of the Guidlford Four said “Black 47 is the voice of the voiceless.” We never tried to live up to that claim. We didn’t have to; we were doing exactly what we wanted. We never listened to advice. Why bother? Who knows you better than yourself? When you take a name like Black 47 you take on a lot of other things too and, in living up to those creeds and ideals, you oftentimes don’t have a lot of say in decisions – they’re already clearly outlined for you. It wasn’t a matter of being doctrinaire – more like when you strayed for a moment off your path, you knew it and there was little choice but to get back in step, for who wanted to be a sellout?
It was interesting too how those creeds and ideals affected the music. You never really wanted to repeat yourself because once you’d nailed something what was the point? Been there – done that – it’s a big world - what’s next! Hence there was a nightly need to re-imagine songs; that was usually no problem because we rarely rehearsed, and so the arrangements tended to be porous. I always felt that the strongest member ruled on the night and we marched to his drummer; having six members with very different musical tastes gave us a lot of range and opportunities. What new flavor could we introduce? What new style? What new musical language could we express an idea in? Alcohol was rarely absent for inspiration and, oddly enough, road fatigue and inattention to detail or design broadened the collective imagination, often hurtling us down new avenues.
I wasn’t even sure I had an album of new songs in me but they must have been damned up somewhere, because once we decided to record I wrote the 12 original songs in a six-week period. What a relief to pick up the guitar or sit down at the piano and feel new compositions flowing again. Of course, the music and lyrics took editing and polishing but I worked every day of those six weeks, often writing one song while completing another. As ever these new compositions were all over the map, geographically, thematically, politically, socially. Why limit yourself? This would indeed be the last call. And when the songs were finished it struck me that I had never written a Black 47 song for any commercial reason. There were many reasons why I wrote them but never to curry favor with a record company, critic, or even an audience. I did write them occasionally with a person’s face in mind. Mostly though, I seemed to have little choice in the matter. They were about whatever was important to me at that moment. And so it goes…
Since nowadays there is little chance of ever earning the costs back from the sales of CDs we decided to crowd-fund. We’d never done anything like that before. It was thrilling to have so many people donate money to make our final album. My thanks, once again, to you all! It wasn’t an easy decision. Black 47 was always fiercely independent so it took a huge leap to reach out to our people. It was humbling to discover how much we were held in esteem around the world.
We went to Stewart Lerman’s Hobo Sound in Weehawken, Sweet New Jersey. Stewart had recorded and mixed many of our albums and it was fun to be back under his wing. He loves each member of the band and, to my mind, always gets the best performances from us. The band was at the height of its creative powers during these recording. Thomas Hamlin and Joseph “Bearclaw” Burcaw were greasier than I’d ever heard them. Slipping and sliding all around that New York pocket, the grooves were mighty. Hammy and Claw are truly a mighty rhythm section - tight and loose at the same time. I guess that’s the New York funk for you. Listen to the Irish Jamaican groove of Johnny Comes a’Courtin and the bad-assed strut of Let The People In. Given another couple of years who knows what these “rivvim brothers” would have come up with.
And as for the brass – listening now, it sounds glorious to me. Right from the first moment Geoffrey Blythe and Fred Parcells played together back in 1990, they decided they would not be your standard section – no they would be soloists who tangled harmonically when the moment was called for. I wouldn’t even mention them together except for the fact that they ineffably built off each other. It’s more a jazz thing than rock. Onstage you could hear them galloping towards each other and you often felt as if they’d collide and the ship would go down, but they always just managed to glide by in striking and inspiring harmonies. Listen to their breadth - jaunty and Bronx-like on Salsa O’Keefe, then brooding and oh so northern as they bring life back to The Miami on The Night The Showbands Died.
No one plays the pipes like Joseph Mulvanerty. I used to think he was influenced by Hendrix, but no, it was Eddie Van Halen! Jesus Christ, the pipers Rowsome and Doran would turn in their graves. Or would they? I think they’d rise up and give him a grim nod of approval. He did a great first-take version of Culchie Prince that I was sure was a keeper, but next day he told me he had to have another run at it. It was too pedantic or predictable – I can’t remember the word he used. Sure enough, he was right for he sat down and belted out the version you hear. It’s wild, all over the pocket, and it captures the Cliffs of Moher better than any lyric or melody I’ve ever heard. It definitely catches the rainy, windy, night the song was written about.
For myself, I was trying to capture some of Bert Berns’ magic. Berns, a Bronx boy, was the writer/producer of Twist & Shout, Piece of My Heart, Here Comes The Night, et al. When I came to New York first Bert’s magic still hung thick in the air. I think we caught a whiff of it in Salsa O’Keefe and Queen of Coney Island, but there’s a little of it coursing through the whole album. Thanks Bert and salutations also to the soul-voice of Christine Ohlman, the breathy innocence of Oona Roche, that Ronettes-like trio of Mary Ann O’Rourke, Staten Island Tom Marlow, and Jersey Jim O’Donnell, the atmospheric guitar of Mike “Il Duce” Fazio, and the amazing accent and delivery of Stephen Gabis – all of whom added glow to this album.
Here are some notes I wrote in Feb. 2014 days after Last Call was completed.
Salsa O’Keefe – We’ve always loved Latin music - so strange that it took us until the end to really have a blow at it. No matter, this is a Bronx story and dedicated to a major influence, Bert Berns, songwriter, and producer extraordinaire! How about Mr. Hamlin’s cowbell!
Culchie Prince – A memory of a wild weekend in the County Clare shortly before I first left for New York. A “culchie” is anyone unsophisticated enough to be born outside the city of Dublin; while a “brasser” – in my day - was a young working-class Dublin lady, unafraid to speak her mind who invariably sported peroxide curls. And oh, those crazy uilleann pipes, Joseph Mulvanerty, blowing like a gale from The Bronx to the Cliffs of Moher.
Dublin Days – Everyone I knew lived close to the borderline in Dublin and yet we always found ways to cadge a pint and fall in love. Even today, if I walk from Stephen’s Green to Trinity College I invariably brush against her shadow. This is for every college student who ever spent a semester in Ireland. Go Christine, the Beehive Queen!
US of A 2014 – It amazes me how people can be so resistant to fixing a system that will consign their children to second-class citizenship. Profits rise, wages fall, Connolly turns in his grave, and Black 47 is outa here! But the question remains: Who stole the scent from the American rose?
The Night The Showbands Died – Fran O’Toole had a voice to die for. There wasn’t a culchie rocker who didn’t adore him. My teenage group opened for The Miami Showband a couple of times; we were awful, Fran couldn’t have been nicer. I had moved to the Lower East Side in 1975 when news of the massacre broke. It seemed unreal, it still does. Fred’s subtle trombone chorale is a tribute unto itself to the great horn players of the showband days.
Johnny Comes a’Courtin - Did the Irish invent Reggae? You can hear the lilt of the melodies and the dropped “th’s” all across Marley’s magnificent music. Oliver Cromwell sent his Irish prisoners to the Caribbean islands. They intermarried with the African enslaved and formed a new culture. Ms. Oona Roche summonses the spirit of a young 17th Century Irishwoman who has a momentous decision to make.
Let The People In – There’s always been a No Nothing Party that wishes to pull the ladder up behind its adherents. But immigration is the lifeblood of this country and its economic engine. Then again, I lived here illegally for three years, so I’m probably biased. Play that funky bass, Mr. Bearclaw!
Lament for John Kuhlman – He was Fred Parcells’ roommate and collaborator. A sax-playing composer with an open heart and a smile for everyone, John was a big unfocused talent. He had demons – who hasn’t? - but that last night we partied with him in LA, it seemed like he had them under control. That’s his music-box opening the track.
St. Patrick’s Day – I’ve always seen March 17th as a wild stallion. Once you’re atop its back, you’ve no choice but to hang on and hope for the best. Puritans may want to regulate and control it but, in essence, it’s the Irish stating that they have survived, they have arrived, and to hell with inhibition!
Queen of Coney Island – I still love it out there on the boardwalk but it used to be a pulsing, proletarian paradise. The music, the lights, the Atlantic, the ladies of the night, innocent and otherwise, I drank it all in through small-town eyes like an icy beer on a sweltering day. Shotsie, Legsy, Mr. Ragonese, and Hot Lips, where are you now?
Shanty Irish Baby – It’s pretty much vanished, the split between Lace Curtain and Shanty. But late at night in the back rooms of old-man saloons, you can hear its echo, and I always know which side I’m on. What a soprano solo from Mr. Blythe!
Ballad of Brendan Behan – We loved him because the straights all hated him – he was a “disgrace to the Irish.” But to us he was a big man in a small country just dying to break out. Was he the first modern victim of fame, or just another drinker with a writing problem? Whatever! He was our Borstal boy and rebel without pause.
Hard Times – I never cared for the teary-eyed versions of this song – they just seem to miss the point. To me, Hard Times is much more about redemption than despair. Foster was far from the melancholic innocent. Guy survived the Five Points for over three years when it was the most notorious slum in the world. He could have quit and gone home to his middle-class life. But he was too proud. Was he searching for something or just couldn’t admit defeat? A fitting song for Black 47 to go out on.
Review for Black 47's Last Call
★★★★ On "Last Call," Black 47 serves a 200 proof cocktail made with a shot of funk and two fingers of Irish malarkey thrown in for good measure. Larry Kirwan saves the best for last, using roots, rock, and reggae to bring the final curtain down on the most influential Irish American band in history.” Mike Farragher/Irish Voice
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