Author’s Note: I have had a relationship with the New York City band Black 47 for well over 20 years. They were, and remain, some of my favorite performers since I first discovered them on Late Night with David Letterman somewhere around 1990. I saw them perform at the new Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri that same year, and just fell in love with their crazy sound, their passion, and founder Larry Kirwan’s wry sense of humor. I interviewed Larry a few times when they came through Colorado in 2002, watched them bring down the house at an Irish festival in Kansas City, and later caught a raucous show at a little beach club in rural Massachusetts. Larry announced this morning that Black 47 will disband next year, on the eve of their 25th anniversary. In tribute, here’s my story about the band at the height of their power, just after 9-11. This story originally appeared in the late Dirty Linen Magazine.
It’s nearly Independence Day and Larry Kirwan of Black 47 is glad to be home.
“It’s always a very special feeling to return to New York City,” says Kirwan, who has recently returned from a cross-country tour opening for Billy Bragg. “ I have to say I love the very stones on the street here. It’s an ever-changing city. It can be brutal and hard but all that is tempered with great kindness and humanity. Besides, it’s home.”
The Irish immigrant landed on the shores of New York in the seventies and has made his home there ever since. After working as a playwright and musician for many years, in 1989, Kirwan formed Black 47 with NYC police officer and uilleann pipe player Chris Byrne, who has since left to focus on his own band, Seanchai. Led by Kirwan on guitar, Black 47 combines pipes, drums and a horn section (led by Geoffrey Blythe of Dexy’s Midnight Runners). That foundation lets the band build songs with influences not only from Irish culture but also from rock, rap and reggae. These are the sounds that make up the background of Kirwan’s life in New York.
Their story spans four studio recordings, hitting radio first with 1990’s Fire of Freedom, produced by Ric Ocasek of the Cars, through Green Suede Shoes, which Kirwan says contains some of his best writing, and most recently Trouble in the Land. They have also released two blistering live recordings. Live in New York City, recorded on St. Patrick’s Day at the famous Wetlands in 1998 has become a favorite on college radio. Their most recent live disc, On Fire was recorded in 2001 while the band was working on new songs. At the same time, Kirwan was putting the finishing touches on Kilroy Was Here, his solo project, as well as Liverpool Fantasy, his first novel that imagines a world in which the Beatles never crossed the Atlantic.
The band has also drawn criticism for their outspoken political and social ideals. Irish icons ranging from revolutionaries James Connolly and Michael Collins to hunger striker Bobby Sands appear throughout Black 47’s songs. Others, such as Maria’s Wedding and Funky Ceili are fictionalizations of moments from Kirwan’s own life. Kirwan points to the Clash, Otis Redding, and Bruce Springsteen as his own key influences.
Despite some weariness from the road, Kirwan reports that the tour went well.
“It was good for the band to play in places where we rarely go,” said Kirwan, who expressed his delight in meeting fans across the country. “It’s almost like bringing home long lost members of one’s family. There’s always such joy in their faces as they watch and listen to us play. It’s thrilling and humbling at the same time.”
The tour stretched with Bragg stretched west to California through country that Kirwan finds inspiring.
“I have a great mythic interest in the West,” said Kirwan of his fascination with the high desert. “Perhaps, growing up in a rainy little Irish town, reading about cowboys fostered that interest. I still get a real kick out seeing the great landscapes of New Mexico and Colorado. It’s America to me.”
As usual, Kirwan and his mates made their way back to New York in a van, playing dates as they went.
“Those dates pay for our journeys and provide each of us a living wages,” says Kirwan. “This might seem unromantic, but we’re a working band that lives from its music.”
As a working band, Black 47 works hard for what they get. They play 48 weeks a year, whether recording or not. The band has endured an amazing cycle of ups and downs in the past 12 years. From playing Letterman, Leno and Irish Night at Shea Stadium, to a rollover wreck on the Jersey turnpike (immortalized in Green Suede Shoes), to a shooting at one of their gigs, Black 47 has survived it all.
That tireless effort gives their gigs an energy born of desperation. “I play every gig as if it might be my last, and that’s not just some cliché’ that I’m trotting out,” explains Kirwan. “I don’t really think beyond writing the next song and reaching that transcendent moment that you fight for in every gig. When we go onstage, that’s my time. A couple of drinks and thrashing around some good serviceable songs – that’s my idea of a great night.”
Despite the rigorous schedule, Black 47 is keeping up the good fight. Kirwan reports that the band sounds better than it ever has. He has enough songs to release a new Black 47 album, but in the wake of the tour and America’s current events, he doesn’t feel the time is right.
“The band still gives 110 % every night and it’s still a thrill to play,” said Kirwan. “We’ve accomplished a lot and are loved by so many. Yet, I still feel that we have mountains to cross, so I suppose we’re in a pretty healthy state.”
“Sometimes, as they say back home, I don’t know my arse from my elbow. But it doesn’t matter,” says Kirwan. “Just point Black 47 towards any stage anywhere in the country and we’ll put on the show of our lives.”