Passion from Black 47

November 17, 1993

New York Town
Black 47
Gadfly Records
Order at <>.


Black 47 opens New York Town with a fierce, loping tribute to the St. Patrick's Battalion (the San Patricios), a band of Irish-American soldiers who, fighting in the 1840s Mexican War, switched sides to fight for the Mexicans, whose resistance to US imperialism reminded them of their fight in Ireland. Heroes to Mexico, they are still regarded as traitors in Washington. One person's hero, as they say.

Most Irish-American bands wouldn't touch that subject. But Black 47 is not your typical Irish-American band. Drawing on reggae, rock, jazz and theatrical monologues, they have evolved from a top-shelf bar band, (which they still are: the "House Band of New York City") to something quite unique. Stylistic godfathers to edgy Irish-American punkrockers like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys, but with far more depth.

Black 47 is dramatic, (not surprising given lead singer/writer Larry Kirwan is a seasoned playwright, novelist and poet). Their songs revolve around often-unresolved dramatic conflicts: An Irish thug falls in love with his imprisoned best pal's girl in "Roisin Dubh"; A bickering, boozing couple struggle to hold it together in "Living In America, Eleven Years On"; A faithful Muslim girl picks loyalty over joy in "Fatima".

All the album's stories are linked, about immigrants and New York. Most of them are really about anguish, about being forced to choose, forced to endure, even being forced to die.

Yet, this is no pious or sanctimonious "tribute" to endurance, sacrifice and survival. New York Town rocks, bounces, hops and even laughs, and it has more grit (and more bagpipes) than Bruce Springsteen's noble, failed effort at a 9/11 "survival" album, The Rising. Somehow, New York Town just feels more real.

Kirwan was a few blocks from Ground Zero when the planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, and he has said that the shock and fear were paralysing as ashen businessmen and terrified secretaries marched blindly up his Manhattan street. He saw and felt it directly. And he has been there for the long, hurtful aftermath, when politicians drop in to sympathise and promise before pursuing their own agenda.

That's what the eerie song, "New York Town", the album's strongest, is all about. New Yorkers are entitled to be fearful, suspicious and disappointed as they try to piece together the true story of what happened that September day. Kirwan won't be voting Republican this November, nor will many New Yorkers.

New York Town looks into the eye of the storm that has hit the US. A hard look that is, and it may take a joke, a jig and a pint of strong stout to get past it. But this band has survived a lot, like their fans, like working people everywhere. I suspect Black 47 will keep on rockin' in the questionably free world for a long time to come.

From Green Left Weekly, March 17, 2004.
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