For 20 years now, Black 47 has been delivering its own brawny and bracing brand of Celtic rock. With a song called "Celtic Rocker" on its new album, the New York band takes an affectionately humorous poke at the musical style it has helped to popularize.
"Like rock music itself, Celtic rock has tended to get cliched," Larry Kirwan, Black 47's Ireland-born front man - and host of Celtic Crush on Sirius and XM satellite radio - says over the phone from his Manhattan home. "With Black 47, because we have the horns and we have a rhythm section that's very sophisticated and into different styles of music, I can call out, say, 'Dave Brubeck' or 'Miles Davis' or 'Led Zeppelin' or 'the Kinks' or whatever. It doesn't have to just be a cliched band."
Bankers and Gangsters offers more evidence of that. After 2008's Iraq, a powerful grunt's-eye view of the desert war, the new album presents a more familiar mix of Kirwan-penned material, distinguished by his gift for cinematic storytelling and an ability to shift nimbly between heavy and light subject matter. There are New York street tales, stories of Irish historical figures, outlandish adventures, and ballads steeped in sadness and loss.
"There's always something to write about," Kirwan says. "With this [album], I focused on writing songs that highlight the musicians, especially the horns and the uilleann pipes."
A playwright and novelist as well as a rocker, Kirwan is also promoting a just-published novel, Rockin' the Bronx. The title comes from an early Black 47 song, but the plot springs from another one, "Sleep Tight in New York City," about a young Irish musician who travels to the Bronx seeking an old flame. It's set in the early '80s, in a neighborhood uneasily transitioning from Irish to Latino. As with Black 47's music, Rockin' the Bronx has a headlong momentum and street-level immediacy, teeming with drama, romance, and politics.
"I really wanted to examine the whole life up there, the immigrant scene, and New York City itself in those watershed years," says Kirwan, who, like the novel's protagonist, Sean, played music in the neighborhood's Irish bars.
The exceedingly prolific front man is also working on a couple of musicals. But, 20 years and more than 2,300 shows down the road, Black 47 remains an adventure for him: Excitement still surrounds each gig, and magic can be found onstage.
"I guess it's because we've always done what we've felt like doing onstage and off. We've always taken our moods onstage. You didn't have to smile if you didn't want to. . . .
"The idea was to work out whatever you're going through onstage," he says with a laugh. "And that seems to have worked out."
They are among the leading practitioners of traditional Irish music, and, thanks to their collaborations with numerous rock and pop stars, the Chieftains are undeniably the most famous. Their new album, however, may be the most ambitious collaborative project yet by these six-time Grammy winners. It's titled
- Spanish for St. Patrick - but it's not about the Celtic saint whose day is celebrated next week. Rather, it tells the story of the San Patricio Battalion, a band of Irish expatriots who deserted the U.S. military to fight against the United States with the Mexican army in the mid-1800s. Coproduced by Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney and Ry Cooder, it's a beautifully sprawling and varied blend of Irish and Mexican music, alternately sad and joyous. Besides singer-guitarist Cooder, who contributes one original among the mostly traditional fare, the many guests include Linda Ronstadt, Lila Downs, and 92-year-old ranchera singer Chavela Vargas.