Pipes, fiddles, bodhrans, a jig, and a reel are as essential to Irish music as green is to garments on St. Patrick's Day. Today, even U2 is passé as far as deflecting the stereotypes is concerned. Fortunately, then, there's a new crop of Irish émigrés whose irreverence and insurgence are as critical to that seasonal soundtrack as leprechauns and shamrocks are to the old country's folklore.
It's no small coincidence, then, that three of Ireland's finest
Stateside surrogates -- Black 47, Flogging Molly, and Dropkick
Murphys -- either have a new album out now or are on the verge of
releasing one. In addition, Ireland's finest native sons, the Saw
Doctors, have a recent effort that's well worth revisiting for this
Arguably, no one group offers a better example of modern Irish music than New York's Black 47. The band's new album, A Funky Ceili, finds this often-insurgent combo tampering with the formula with tongue firmly planted in cheek. The basic ingredients are still there -- the rollicking rhythms, the dashed, defiant vocals, and the irreverent attitude that's shaped its sound for the better part of the past 20 years. World music, klezmer, blues, brass, rock, and even rap have been integrated into their standard menu of spit and sass, resulting in a lively if unlikely mix. It's hard to imagine that "Hava Nagila" would find common ground with a brassy Irish reel, but somehow they manage an effective merger on "Izzy's Irish Rose." Likewise, with strains of "When the Saints Come Marching In" setting the stage for "Those Stages," a common culture of celebration becomes all too apparent. Cool, clever, and otherwise unimaginable, A Funky Ceili clearly lives up to its title.
For their part, the Dropkick Murphys opt not to stir the pot but to stir the spirits instead. Like their previous albums released over the course of the past 15 years, this Boston-based outfit is spurred by revelry and revolution, a rallying cry echoed by "Hang 'Em High," the opening track of their just-released album, Going Out in Style. Part punk, part pontification, they proffer a raucous hodgepodge of guitars, fiddles, whistles, bagpipes, and frenzied rhythms in memory of an Irish expatriate named Cornelius Larkin, a man whose spark and spirit typified Ireland's émigrés in the early part of the last century. The pace never slackens, and it makes Going Out in Style an album of stirring, nonstop celebration from beginning to end. A better St. Patrick's Day soundtrack isn't easy to imagine.
Flogging Molly's latest, The Speed of Darkness, won't be released until the end of May, but it too promises to make a searing statement that speaks to everyday aspirations. Written and recorded in Detroit, home to singer/songwriter/cofounder Dave King, it's billed in the news release as "a hard-nosed look at the economic collapse in the US: the causes and the direct effect it has had on everyday people. The Motor City serves as the album's muse and one of the biggest examples of what has gone wrong. While Speed of Darkness attacks much of the greed and ignorance responsible for where we are, the album also delivers a message of hope, humanity and the resilience of mankind. It reminds us how we grow stronger when faced with adversity and how we bond together and become more involved." The Mollys made a rare visit to South Florida last month, giving local fans an opportunity to view firsthand their double-fisted combination of passion and purpose.
Then there are the Saw Doctors, who admittedly veers widely from the Celtic template and yet still retain allegiance to their native land. They do so through lyrical imagery that conjures up the serenity of the sea and the lush, lovely environs of their adolescence. The band's always had the ability to evoke an emotional response from its listeners, be it the rousing enthusiasm of its catchy hooks and choruses or the sweet nostalgia evoked in reminiscences of days gone by. The band's latest album, released at the end of last year and tellingly titled The Further Adventures of the Saw Doctors, ups the ante on the energy with a slightly more aggressive rock edge. Indeed, "Take the Train" and "Friday Town" are as effortlessly infectious as always. Yet it's the ballads that effectively stir the sentiment, and here again these Galway homeboys evoke heart and soul with the tender "Someone Loves You," "Last Call," and "Indian Summer." Sung with an Irish brogue and soulful assurance, these Further Adventures are clearly worth pursuing.
Finally, for those interested in investigating the roots of Irish rock, a spate of new releases allows the opportunity. The late Rory Gallagher continues to be represented by archival offerings that affirm his standing as the country's greatest guitarist. The most recent of these is The Beat Club Sessions, culled from his appearances on German television in the mid-'80s and featuring such fiery classics as "Laundromat," "Hands Up," "Crest of a Wave," and the immortal "Messin' With the Kid." Likewise, a pair of reissues from Thin Lizzy (whose onetime guitarist Gary Moore passed away just last month) brings belated attention to that edgy Irish outfit. Its classics Jailbreak and Johnny the Fox have been expanded to included entire discs of unreleased material, further evidence of the fact that, U2 not withstanding, Thin Lizzy were the foremost champions of their Irish origins.
So here's a suggestion for this St. Paddy's Day -- don the green, knock back some brew, and let the music rouse you. Rarely does a holiday offer such stunning choices in a soundtrack.