A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New MexicanMarch 17, 2006
Black 47 first roared back in the early ‘90s, about the time that The Pogues began to falter. It’s always been tempting to assume that this New York band, led by Irish expatriate Larry Kirwin was just running with the torch that The Pogues passed on to them.
But nothing’s that simple, especially when you’re dealing with Irish musicians. While both bands mix traditional Irish music with crazy rock ‘n’ roll, Black 47 can’t be dismissed as a “Pogues Jr.” group.
While not the poet that The Pogues’ former frontman Shane McGowan is, Kirwin is a strange visionary in his own right. In the Black 47 cosmos, elements of reggae, Dixieland and even hip hop are as natural as uilleann pipes and penny whistles.
And Black 47, taking its name from the worst year of the potato famine, has a pronounced political bent. Many of Kirwin’s songs celebrate Irish revolutionary heroes — James Connolly, Michael Collins, Bobby Sands — while many more deal with Irish immigrants and the generations they spawned in America.
Their latest album Bittersweet Sixteen, is both a treat for old fans as well as a good starting place for newcomers. It’s an odds ‘n’ sods (in this case, maybe an “odds and Old Sod”) retrospective including rarities, live radio cuts, a stray soundtrack number from a movie you probably never saw, and a couple of new tunes.
Larry and the boys tackle the issue of war. There’s a funky version of the Vietnam-era Buffalo Springfield hit, “For What It’s Worth,” which plays just before a trilogy of anti-war anthems. “One thing holds true in all wars, working class kids do the fightin’, rich white men in Washington do the sendin’ ” Kirwin tells the audience before the live version of “My Love is in New York,” which is about Vietnam.
The next two tracks, “Downtown Baghdad Blues” and “South Chicago Waltz” both are from the perspectives of American troops in Iraq wishing they were back home.
“Downtown Baghdad” is almost jaunty, with Kirwin rapping in his sing-songy style: “Me, I don’t care much about Jesus or Mohammad/They don’t stop bullets to the best of my knowledge.”
“Southside Chicago Waltz,” is slower, sadder, with uilleann pipes playing a heartbreaking air.
“Sometimes you gotta be bigger than you are stretch upon your stars, reach out for the stars/I hope to God what we’re doing here is right/’Cause I can’t take anymore of these bloody, God-awful nights.”
Later in the album there’s a version of the Irish Republican classic “Patriot Game,” from which Bob Dylan borrowed the melody for “With God on Our Side.”
But just because Kirwin’s against the war doesn’t make him a tofu-munching, aura-balancing peacenik.
Bittersweet Sixteen contains a version of what probably is my favorite Black 47 song, “Forty Deuce,” a sweeping tale of the life of an Irish gangster in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, full of sex, crime, betrayal and revenge.
This take is radically different from the familiar one on Green Suede Shoes. Here it starts out with a crazy wailing bebop sax. Kirwin comes in with a raspy spoken introduction. The sax part evolves into the melody of the instrumental break of the song before the whole band comes in.
The climax of the song has a line that ranks up there with Johnny Cash’s famous words about shooting that guy in Reno.
“I followed Spider Murphy into a church down by Times Square/I blew him to sweet Jesus while he was kneelin’ at his prayers.”
Perhaps the most moving song here is none other than “Danny Boy.” But this is not your father’s “Danny Boy.” Kirwin turns this into an ode to a wild, gay Irish immigrant who in his prime gave homophobes good reason to be phobic of homos. (”...whenever the weather turns damp at least one homophobe has an aching jaw,” Kirwin says of the song in the liner notes.)
But Danny Boy ends up dying of AIDS, After Danny’s last words from his hospital bed, (”Life’s a bitch and then you die,”) Kirwin sings the original lyrics, about a parent bidding farewell to a son who is leaving — off to war? Sailing to America? It’s hard to imagine the original “Danny Boy” being any sadder, but Kirwin and Black 47 somehow pull it off.
(Check out www.black47.com)
Another new Irish treat:
The Essential Chieftains: This two-disc set is a much more honest effort than the single disc compilation from 2002 that was questionably named The Best of The Chieftains. That collection drew from only three Chieftains album (all on Columbia in the late 1970s).
Granted, it would be hard to compile a career-spanning retrospect of Paddy Maloney and his traditional-based Irish ensemble, whose first album was released more than 40 years ago. And judging from what’s missing from Essential, apparently the group’s first several albums were unavailable — assumedly for legal, contractual, why-I-hate-the-music-industry reasons.
(A little Chieftains trivia: The first albums were numbered, Chieftains 1, Chieftains 2, etc. However, between Chieftains 6 -- subtitled Bonapart’s Retreat and Chieftains 7 -- there was another album, Chieftains Live! )
I’ve got a few minor qualms with this new collection. Did the entire second disc have to be guest-vocalist cuts? And if so, why did they leave out “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” (with Elvis Costello) and, if you’re going to have only one with Van Morrison, why use the plodding “Shenandoah,” instead of the celestial “Cerrickfergus” or the sublime “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” ? (Again, I suspect contractual issues.)
Still, I admire the compiler for finding versions of early Chieftains songs “The Women of Ireland” and “Tabhair Dom Do Lamh (Give Me Your Hand).” Both the versions her are part of medleys, and neither are as good as the mid ‘70s originals, but they’re both wonderful pieces of music.
And I was happy that at least one track from The Chieftains in China showed up here. That was an early ‘80s album where Paddy and the lads teams up with Chinese folk musicians to produce some delightfully exotic sounds.
(Check out www.legacy recordings.)
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