Celtic rock group
Black 47, named for the worst year of Ireland’s Great Potato Famine, is a band comprised mostly of either Irish expatriates or the descendants of Irish immigrants. Based in New York City, the group plays a unique blend of traditional Celtic music, rock ‘n’ roll, rap, hip-hop, funk, and reggae. Lyrically, their street-wise songs contain stories about Irish-American culture, as well as Irish revolutionary heroes such as James Connolly, Michael Collins, and Bobby Sands. Black 47 also tackles sociopolitical issues like racism with equal measures of humor, anger, and wisdom. Throughout the 1990s Black 47 remained largely a pub-rock outfit, with little mainstream following or critical attention. Black 47 leader Larry Kirwan remains content with his band’s standing, however. “We have a following and we make a living off of it and we make the records we want to make,” he told Washington Post contributor Alona Wartofsky. “We turn people on to different thoughts…. We’re having an impact, and I’m not sure some of these bands out now that are top-40 bands can say that.”
Kirwan, a self-published playwright who grew up in Wexford, Ireland, and moved to New York City at age 20, initially came to music as a vehicle for his narratives. In the late 1970s he and another Irish expatriate named Pierce Turner recorded as a folksy art-rock duo under the name Turner and Kirwan of Wexford; during the 1980s Kirwan was a member of the group the Major Thinkers. Then in 1989 Kirwan walked into a rundown Manhattan bar called Paddy Reilly’s where he saw Chris Byrne, at the time also a policeman, playing the uilleann pipes for the local folk group Beyond the Pale. After the show, the two men began discussing music and before the night ended, they decided to form their own group—Black 47.
For four months, Kirwan, on electric guitar and a drum machine, and Byrne, on pipes, various whistles, and bodhran, played gigs at Irish pubs throughout the Bronx. They then secured a three-week residency at Paddy Reilly’s, during which time the duo’s following from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens showed up for performances in great numbers. While working at Paddy Reilly’s, Kirwan and Byrne picked up trombonist Fred Parcells, a New England Conservatory of Music graduate who had worked with both big bands and country groups. The band increased to six members with the addition of saxophonist Geoffrey Blythe, a Birmingham, England, native and founding member of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, drummer and percussionist Thomas Hamlin, and bassist David Conrad.
In December of 1991 Black 47 released an independent self-titled debut album. After signing with SBK/EMI Records, and with the Cars’ Ric Ocasek and Kirwan as coproducers, they released a five-song EP, also entitled Black 47, in 1992, that featured “Funky Ceili (Bridie’s Song),” and “James Connelly” from the LP along with three new songs, “Maria’s Wedding,” “Our Lady of the Bronx,” and “Black 47.” Despite a major-label presence, Black 47 received a mixed response. Rolling Stone’s Kara Manning insisted the band could “hold its own without succumbing to melodrama” and expressed an “unequivocal commitment to visceral ideas,” while Ira A. Robbins in the Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock called the EP, in particular, “the only record one need own by the band, whose theatrical over-zealousness, topical grandstanding and forced stylistic blend frequently conspire to make it unbearable.”
The full-length Fire of Freedom, also coproduced by Ocasek, followed in March of 1993. Along with four songs off the Black 47 EP, the album contained “Rockin’ the Bronx,” a rapped story of Black 47’s history, and “New York, NY 10009,” chronicling Kirwan’s own hard times on the city’s underground rock scene. Home of the Brave, on which Kevin Jenkins had replaced Conrad on bass, surfaced the following year in October and was produced by Jerry Harrison, formerly of the Talking Heads. Highlights from the album included “Blood Wedding” and the rousing “Who Killed Bobby Fuller,” but the 16-song Home of the Brave nevertheless suffered mixed reviews. Black 47 spent much of 1993 and 1994 on tour in support of both albums.
In February of 1995, Black 47 enlisted a new bass player, Andrew Goodsight, when Kevin Jenkins decided to retire following a van crash outside Providence, Rhode Island, during a round of tours. Switching to Mercury Records, Black 47 recorded the album Green Suede Shoes. Released in October of 1996, it
Members include Geoffrey Blythe, saxophones; Chris Byrne (left group, 2000), uilleann pipes, tin whistle, vocals; David Conrad (left group, 1994), bass; Andrew Goodsight (joined group, 1995), bass, keyboards, vocals; Thomas Hamlin, drums, percussion; Kevin Jenkins (group member, 1994-95), bass; Larry Kirwan, lead vocals, guitar; Joseph Mulvanerty (joined group, 2000), uilleann pipes, flute, bodhran; Fred Parcells, trombone, tin whistle, vocals.
Group formed in New York City, 1989; self-released Black 47, 1991; signed with SBK/EMI Records, released Black 47 EP, 1992; released Fire of Freedom, 1993, and Home of the Brave, 1994; moved to Mercury Records for Green Suede Shoes, 1996; released Trouble in the Land on the independent label Shanachie Records, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Shanachie Records, 13 Laight St., 6th Fl., New York, NY 10013, (212) 334-0284. Publicist —Intercultural Niche Strategies, Inc., 11 Broadway # 1063, New York, NY 10004-3122, (212) 248-5900. Website —Black 47 Official Website: http://www.black47.com.
received a few favorable reviews but failed to generate record sales. However, one critic explained that because of Black 47’s jolting, unconventional use of instrumentation, coupled with Kirwan’s idealistic song-writing style, the band has remained at odds with the rock scene. “I like to introduce different elements into rock music,” Kirwan explained to Buddy Seigal in the Los Angeles Times. “Rock music is open to a lot of different interpretations. Perhaps the years of self-training as a playwright bring that out in me. Why not introduce other elements; why not bring Shakespeare into rock music; why not do anything you want with it? Why be like something you hear on the radio?… Who would even want to listen to the radio nowadays anyway?”
After Live in New York City, Black 47 released the well-received Trouble in the Land on the independent Shanachie Records label in early 2000. Notable tracks included “Susan Falls Apart” and “Delirious,” both harsh examinations of working-class misfortunes. “Black 47 remains one of rock’s inexplicably obscure treasures…,” concluded Edna Gunderson of USA Today. “From the ambitious ‘Bodhrans on the Brain’ to the glorious, hope-fueled ‘Touched by Fire’ to the wickedly satiric ‘I Got Laid on James Joyce’s Grave,’ Black 47 parties with revolutionary fervor.” Following the arrival of Trouble in the Land, Byrne decided to leave Black 47 to work with the Celtic folk group Seanchi. He was replaced by Joseph Mulvanerty.
In addition to fronting Black 47, Kirwan also recorded the solo set Kilroy Was Here and a children’s album entitled Keltic Kids, released in 1998 on Pirate Moon Records. “I’m appalled at pop culture and what it’s doing to kids…,” Kirwan, the father of two boys, explained to Billboard magazine’s Moira McCormick regarding his drive to make a record for children. “South Park, things like that. It’s turning them into cynics…. I want to keep kids young, tell them stories that encourage them to use their imagination.”
Black 47, BLK, 1991.
Black 47 (EP), SBK. 1992.
Fire of Freedom, SBK, 1993.
Home of the Brave, SBK/EMI, 1994.
Green Suede Shoes, Tim/Kerr/Mercury, 1996.
Live in New York City, Gadfly, 1999.
Trouble in the Land, Shanachie, 2000.
Robbins, Ira A., The Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock, Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Billboard, June 6, 1998; January 29, 2000.
Boston Globe, January 27, 1993; October 20, 1994; March 11, 1995; December 11, 1996; January 13, 2000.
Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1993; March 10, 1993; July 15, 1993; July 17, 1993; December 1, 1994; November 30, 1996.
People, August 2, 1993; April 20, 1998.
Rolling Stone, March 19, 1992.
Time, April 5, 1993.
USA Today, February 15, 2000.
Washington Post, November 11, 1994; February 18, 2000; September 29, 2000.
“Black 47,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 24, 2002).
Black 47 Official Website, http://www.black47.com (February 24, 2002).
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