Fire in the Streets

You think you know New York? Black 47 knows New York.

We don't rehearse," deadpans Black 47 leader Larry Kirwan. A rowdy bar band if there ever was one, Black 47 is an audaciously vibrant, politically charged, gurgling hodge podge of Celtic and American folk, country, swing jazz, reggae, and hip-hop. As Kirwan suggests, the band likes its edges rough, even on record, preferring tension over polish; passion is the glue that holds them together. Kirwan's vocals sail through the din, meandering regardless of key. Not unlike the early work of Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, or Bruce Springsteen, their music sounds more pushed from the belly than sung.

In conversation, however, Kirwan is relaxed, full of droll humor and charm, even when addressing the numerous issues on which he is boldly outspoken in music. A history and literature buff, playwright, and novelist as well as an expatriate Irishman from "the town of Wexford in the County of Wexford," Kirwan is still consumed by a deep love affair with New York City, his adopted home since landing at JFK airport with $50 in his pocket in the early '70s. That love serves as the central, unifying hinge of New York Town, the new Black 47 album.

"It's my home," Kirwan says emphatically. "It took me in. This album is an attempt to give back a little to it because the city took such a hard knock on September 11. It's an attempt to give a picture of what the city is like around the turn of the 21st Century."

Black 47: The thinking man's bar band
Black 47: The thinking man's bar band

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Like the songs on 1993's Fire of Freedom, the new numbers are character-driven narratives. Modeled after James Joyce's Dubliners, New York Town presents a highly individualized panorama of life experience. "If you read those short stories in Dubliners," he explains, "they're not really connected, but you get a flavor of what Dublin was like at the turn of the 20th Century."

Numerous guests, including David Johansen and Roseanne Cash, help flesh out the characters, which run the gamut from comic to tragic. Naturally, the World Trade Center disaster looms over several of the stories, including "Mychal," an ode to deceased New York Fire Department Chaplain Mychal Judge, a Black 47 fan whom the band knew personally. (Large-scale tragedy is familiar territory; the band name refers to 1847, the worst year of Ireland's cataclysmic Potato Famine, which claimed 3 million lives out of a population of 8 million.)

Kirwan's take on the place is refreshingly broad-minded. He doesn't suffer from the center-of-the-universe provincialism that so plagues the city and its residents. It is a well-known truism that most New Yorkers rarely venture outside the neighborhoods in which they live and work. Kirwan is aware of New York as a "big conglomeration of villages," and New York Town's inhabitants hail from all four corners of town, which, in real life, Kirwan has extensively explored.

"We've played in every one of the boroughs and played in neighborhoods that most people wouldn't necessarily go to," he explains before adding: "I've been lost in every part of this city!"

When he emigrated, Kirwan literally got off the plane and onto the subway, rode it to midtown Manhattan, and found the New Yorker Hotel, where he soon began to parlay his 50 bucks into his first source of income.

"The New Yorker Hotel at that point was totally out of control," he recalls fondly, through heavy laughter. "I was standing in the lobby, and I saw this Irish guy. I said 'What's the chances of getting a room here?' He said, 'Well, I have a room, and I rent out the floor at five dollars a night. If you get in early enough, you get one of the beds.' I did that for a couple of nights, and then I realized, 'Ahhhhh... if I got a room, I could do the same thing.' So I went into the rooming business in the New Yorker."

After leaving the hotel, Kirwan moved to the Lower East Side, then predominantly populated by African-Americans and Latinos. To make a living, Kirwan began gigging around town. He eventually formed a duo, Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, with hometown friend Pierce Turner, who had come to the States with Kirwan. The duo evolved into the Major Thinkers, put out an album on Epic, and split up in 1985. Kirwan was longing to hear another Irish accent, and one night he stumbled upon a police officer and uillean pipe player named Chris Byrne.

Over a few rounds, Kirwan noticed Byrne's dampened spirits -- Byrne's band was about to break up, but he had gigs lined up. Buzzed on whiskey, Kirwan suggested the two of them fulfill the live engagements. One thing led to another, and an embryonic version of Black 47 was conceived. "One of the problems straight off was the band he was in was a nice, folksy kind of band," Kirwan says. "I was more from the CBGB's school." It took time for their sound to develop, but as they added more members and officially became Black 47, their political fervor (most notably their support of Irish Republicanism, a much more controversial stance at the time) and freewheeling musical adventurousness only grew.

Though Black 47's sound is often bouncy and fun, there was a confrontational, almost volatile element to their shows, enhanced somewhat by Byrne's tough presence. "He had the gravitas of a police officer," Kirwan says. "At that point, New York was kinda rowdy. There were a lot of drug dealers. The streets were tough. He would have come from some confrontation with someone, and now we're in a bar and there's a confrontation going again. These things didn't phase him too much. He was used to a whole other level of violence."

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