[ATTENDED: April 4, 2014] Black 47
I was a fan of Black 47 when they first came out (even though my Irish friends dismissed them out of hand. What with the “Bridie!” and the “Fiddlee diddlee deidely dee!” and, yeah, Larry Kirwan’s voice, they were just too much for actual Irishmen. But Irish-Americans loved them. And now 25 years after they burst onto the scene with “Funky Cieli,” they are calling it quits.
As far as I can tell Kirwan is the only original member left in the band (I’m not inclined to do the research on that). Actually, I didn’t even realize they were still together. But they have been releasing albums over the years–some of which have been lauded and other not so much. (Kirwan has also published some books and is a host on Sirius FM). They have a brand new going-away album called Last Call, and if the live versions of the songs were any indication, they sound quite good. And Kirwan is just as political as ever: “If you’re Irish you have to be political.”
I actually saw Black 47 back in, oh, 1993. I remembered the show, but had misremembered the venue. It wasn’t a concert, it was a small club in Allston, Mass. I don’t seem to have any photos. The bar was packed, I could barely see the band, and I’m not even sure if the people there were there to see the band. I don’t even know if there was a cover charge. So it only seems fitting that this concert, one of their last on their farewell tour, should also be free. As part of the Princeton University’s Fund for Irish Studies, the band played a free 90 minute set in the tiny Berlind Theater.
I have seen a few theater shows there, so I was a little surprised that the sound wasn’t great (well, mostly Kirwan’s lyrics were hard to understand, but that may be a common problem for him), but my seat was great–a few rows back in dead center.
Black 47 have always been known more for their live show that their records, and their live show was indeed great, even if the set was utterly sparse. Kirwan’s voice is certainly distinctive–some would say irritating. He hits some high notes, he screeches a bit and he talks and raps all over the place. You basically either love it or hate it and I find that sometimes I hate it. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the band. The rest of the band was really tight. Geoffrey Blythe on saxophones (fantastic), Thomas Hamlin on drums (solid and played some interesting beats), Fred Parcells on trombone and tin whistle (the trombone really brought a lot to the set and the tin whistle produced some of the highest pitched notes in the show), Joseph “Bearclaw” Burcaw on bass (he actually did a bass solo which was a little silly) and Joseph Mulvanerty on uilleann pipes (amazing to see live), flutes and bodhran (I wished he had gotten a bigger solo on the bodhran).
They played a nice mix of songs from throughout their career. I only know there first couple of albums, so I didn’t know many of the songs. But they were all solid horn-based rockers. There were some political ones. But mostly there were the storytelling ones–Kirwan tells a good story both between songs and in the lyrics. The newest songs sounded good too–I particularly liked the one that he said is his argument that the Irish helped to create reggae (something about Oliver Cromwell sending the irish to his plantations in Jamaica). Perhaps the biggest surprise from this Irish rock band is the different styles they throw in the mix–like reggae and rap (Rockin’ the Bronx is a super fun song live even if it has the egregious rhyme of “give us a chance/we’re rockin’ the Bronx”). This is where the bass solo came in, but it was followed by a lengthy instrumental break for each instruments which was a lot of fun to watch.
I really enjoy the early song “James Connolly” so I was glad to hear them play it (and way the star and plow flag). It’s a good strong rebel anthem (even with a strangely uplifting musical section as a bridge). I’ve always found the “Oh Lily” spoken part be a bit awkward–even more so live, but the song itself is undeniable. And I was amused at the end of “Funky Cieli” (their last song) that he still asks Bridie if their baby has red hair and glasses since Kirwan’s hair is decidedly gray at this point. But he still rocks hard and plays a mean noisy guitar.
The show ended with the band hanging out by the merch table. I didn’t get to stay, but I did get some of the free nibbles available to attendees (note to self–always go to free events sponsored by the University departments, the catering is delicious!). And since the show started at 4:30 (on a Friday), I was out by 6:30 and ready to head home for dinner. I guess we’re all senior citizens after all.
They were totally cool with us taking pictures (and even recording the whole show). So here’s two decent shots of Larry and Joseph: