Rebels all: Black 47's immigrant reels rock the empire

Issue 

Bittersweet Sixteen
Black 47

REVIEW BY BILL NEVINS

Larry Kirwan's never been a quiet immigrant. Since his green suede Irish boots hit American ground some 30 years ago, the man's been rocking and screaming his bold heart out, and never more fiercely than when he's at the helm of Black 47, New York City's cherished, barroom-shaking "house band" — true rebels all! When pub owners complained about the band's socialist lyrics, their attitude or their volume, Black 47 just turned it all up. No-one complained about the packed shows.

Black 47's fans are among the most loyal in rockdom — fists, flags and dark pints raised high in the air at shows. Most can sing all the words, intricate and rhyme-strewn though Kirwan's literate, history-laced lyrics may be. Movie stars, professors, cops, clergy and atheists all mix happily at their gigs.

Yet Kirwan and his mates will take on even their own fans if need be. When the US blundered into Iraq, Black 47 called this war what it is: an unmitigated disaster and a betrayal. Some fans could not take the cold reality of that truth, sung straight up, and they walked away from the band. But Black 47 kept playing on. Two hundred gigs a year and little time for parting tears. It's a revolution they're about, albeit a peaceful dancing one, and make no mistake about that. New fans showed up, dancing and yelling along, soon enough. Such is life, as Kirwan likes to say.

And so it's gone on for some 16 riotous, blissful years. This latest CD chronicles those years, but it's not just a "greatest hits" collection. The selections — which include much material not otherwise available — have been chosen and sequenced to give the arc of the band's dramatic story. There's the angry exile in "Home of the Brave", just on these shores, ripped off from the start and determined not to give in.

Then there are the drunken revellers trying to forget with booze, dance and rock 'n roll. But the real world keeps coming back into mind. "Downtown Baghdad Blues", "South Side Chicago Waltz" and even a reprise of that 1960s chestnut "For What It's Worth" call up war and loss. As Kirwan declares at the start of a trilogy of songs about recent US wars, "One thing holds true, rich men start wars and the working class gets to fight 'em."

Black 47 take this grand CD out with some reflections on what it all means, but never without a wink and reel. Fine stuff, indeed.