The Roaring Jack Archives 21st Century Reviews - Black 47 Feature

Black 47 - Live in New York City (Gadfly Records, 1999) / Trouble in the Land (Shanachie, 2000) / On Fire (Gadfly Records, 2001)

Here is a legendary New York band that I only managed to hear for the first time recently. That’s strange, because they have been around since about 1989, and first supported the Pogues way back in 1991. Black 47’s politics, heritage and music certainly place the band somewhere within Roaring Jack’s universe, so why did it take so long for me to hear of them?

Principal singer/songwriter Larry Kirwan has a story similar to that of Roaring Jack’s Alistair Hulett. Displaced from his native Celtic homeland, his songs and music confront the challenges of living in a strange, distant new city and coming to terms with the history and culture of that city and relating them to those of his own country. Swap Scotland for Ireland and Sydney for New York City and you’ll have some idea what I’m on about here.

Musically, Black 47 is equally a product of its Irish and New York City heritage. Traditional Irish music figures heavily in Black 47’s riffs and references – songs are often built on a traditional tune - and many of the songs are driven by the stirring sound of Uilleann pipes. But then the contemporary sounds of New York City filter in, for there are elements of reggae, hip-hop and punk throughout. Saxophones, trombone and the occasional tin whistle augment the guitar, bass, drums and Uilleann pipes and provide a totally unique sound.

Live in New York City is an ideal starting point for those, like me, who didn’t get to hear this band during the 1990s. It was recorded on St Patrick’s Day in 1998, and serves as a ‘most popular songs so far played live’ kind of package. Drawing upon several albums worth of material, the band treats a very enthusiastic hometown audience to many favorites. Live in New York City starts with a reggae flavour, with a raucous treatment of Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’. You know the one, ‘Every little thing’s gonna be all right’? It segues seamlessly into the bouncy ska-tinged original, ‘Desperate’. A more traditional sound surfaces with tracks like ‘Funky Ceili’, ‘Green Suede Shoes’ and ’40 Shades of Blue’. Mind you, the unusual instrumentation and the occasional rapping of second vocalist Chris Byrne guarantee the sound is never straight-forward Celtic. ‘Fanatic Heart’ offers a change of pace, a more mellow track with more than a dose of the Van Morrisons.

Trouble in the Land is Black 47’s latest studio album, and the last one to feature the gruff-voiced rapping of ex-cop Chris Byrne. (Chris now fronts his own band, Seanchai, retaining the Celtic feel but with more of an accent on the hip-hop. Hopefully we will move onto Seanchai in a future review.) Here’s a stirring blend of the political and the personal. There are passionate forays into media bigotry (the title track), Irish republicanism (‘Touched by Fire’) and American politics (‘Bobby Kennedy’. These are balanced with some amusing anecdotes of sexual frustration (‘Desperate’), drunken carousing (‘I Got Laid on James Joyce’s Grave’ – Larry, what a story!) and losing one’s love to an middle-aged alcoholic goatskin stretcher (‘Bodhrans on the Brain’). The centrepiece for me is ‘Those Saints’, a touching tribute to Johnny Byrne, Black 47’s good mate who died suddenly in 1996. ‘Those Saints’ takes the riff from ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ and convinces the listener that the song was made for a Celtic rocksteady treatment. Dead friends, an indifferent reception in Ireland and playing Shea Stadium in New York all figure prominently in this excellent song. ‘Touched by Fire’ is worth a mention, even if it does remind me a little of U2. It’s a tribute to the Countess Markievicz and explores her understandably scathing views on the partition of Ireland. I love the line about the only real change for people living in the Republic after 1922: ‘Oh, but they let us paint our post boxes green’. There’s so much going on in this album, an eclectic yet well assembled studio offering.

The most recent full-length release by Black 47 is On Fire, another live one. Released in 2001, On Fire only features two songs from Trouble in the Land. ‘Those Saints’ and ‘I Got Laid on James Joyce’s Grave’ have obviously become live favourites, as they’re met with a tremendous reception by the audience. Indeed, it soon becomes apparent why the band didn’t stop with just one live album. With so many great songs and such a long recording history, there are probably fans out there who are hanging out for yet another Black 47 live album.

As with Roaring Jack, the ratio of political songs to personal ones here is pretty even. And again like Roaring Jack, Black 47 not only incorporates traditional music into its originals, but also finds contemporary artists to cover. The two Bobs (Marley and Dylan) got a run on the previous live album; on this one Peter Gabriel’s ‘Biko’ is given the Black 47 treatment. It ends up sounding very little like the original, and for me that’s always a major indicator of a successful cover version!

Larry Kirwan and the boys certainly give us an opportunity to try before we buy. The official website has a ‘radio station’ which streams Black 47 songs along with other related works. There’s also a German fan site which has several live tracks ready for download. Check ‘em out: like Roaring Jack, Black 47 should no longer be a secret! (AC)

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