By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
Second of two parts
Wexford native Larry Kirwan — co-founder and guiding spirit of seminal Irish rock band Black 47, playwright, memoirist, novelist, columnist, radio show producer and host — has been one of the most visible and active figures on the Irish music scene for the past two decades, especially in New York (The Daily News once placed him ahead of Madonna in its list of the 50 most interesting New Yorkers).
Kirwan, who along with Black 47 will be playing next month (April 15) at the new Four Green Fields pub (in which he has a small role) at 1 Boston Place, talked recently with Boston Irish Reporter about his various enterprises, musical and otherwise, his favorite authors, and his views on discourse and civility
Q: During the first several years of Black 47, you wrote and performed songs [“Big Fella,” “Time to Go,” “Bobby Sands, MP”] that dealt with The Troubles, and the Anglo-Irish conflict in general. Did the Good Friday agreement, and the easing of tensions in Northern Ireland, make that aspect of your repertoire seem less relevant, less compelling?
Kirwan: You have to consider the extraordinarily deep roots in that conflict, although the conflict itself might be over. The reasons for that conflict to exist were and are most interesting, and there’s still a lot to learn from all that happened. For me, the conflict was always there, going back to influences in boyhood days that I still think about. We called ourselves “Black 47” -- which, of course, refers to the worst year of the Great Famine -- for a reason. When you play to Irish-Americans, you’re hitting that deep root of history ; it just can’t be avoided.
The thing is, Black 47 never preached. The songs that we did about The Troubles and so on were allegorical. We were saying, “Look, the story is there for those who want to learn it.” And as I said, the lessons in that story don’t become irrelevant.
For example, look at James Connolly, this left-wing, populist leader in the 1916 Easter Uprising. He seemed to have become less relevant during the years of the Celtic Tiger, but there’s been tremendous renewed interest in his writings with what’s happened to the Irish economy, and his preachings against the bosses from all countries who make financial decisions that affect the lives of Irish people.
Q: It’s fair to say, of course, that Black 47 does other kinds of songs than those that have to do with Ireland. You’ve taken on issues having to do with race, social injustice, whether on a small or large scale -- and the title track of your most recent CD, “Bankers and Gangsters,” was a kind of populist commentary on the financial crisis and the anger arising out of it, right?
Kirwan: We always try to get our albums balanced. Yes, there are the sociopolitical songs, but there is humor, too, and story-telling: “Blood Wedding,” “Green Suede Shoes,” “Celtic Rocker,” “Josie and Johnny.”
Again, Black 47 is not about preaching. We’re not telling people that they have to think this way, but just that they should think, period.
Q: The shootings in Tucson in early January seemed to foster a kind of nation-wide reflection and assessment on the political environment in America, and perhaps more fundamentally, on the nature of our discourse with one another. As someone who thinks and expresses a lot about political issues, what’s your impression of this?
Kirwan: I think what we’ve been seeing in recent years is too much anger, a rigidity in people’s thinking. And this is something the band and I experienced ourselves, in the period when we recorded and released our “Iraq” CD. We came out against the war in Iraq from the beginning, and it sparked fights in the halls where we played. The anger, the hatred that we encountered was incredible, and people were telling us “You have no right to sing this!” The thing is, many of our fans are in the armed forces, and most of the songs on “Iraq” are from the troops’ point of view. We felt it was patriotic to sing against the war.
With Black 47, it’s always “How do you get people to think? And how do you get them to think outside their usual way?” That’s what I see as the real problem here: People have lost the ability to see others’ points of view, and to engage with them meaningfully. I’m from a left-wing background, but I have conservative friends, and we have great discussions; I’m glad they believe the way they do, because how else do I get another perspective? I mean, that’s what democracy is about.
Don’t forget, I grew up in a country that had been divided by a civil war. My grandfather and his neighbor had probably been shooting at one another years ago, but now here they were living practically right next to one another. You have to have civility -- learn to tip your cap to one another, at least.
Q: I understand there’s a new Black 47 CD out?
Kirwan: It’s called “A Funky Ceili.” We decided to take 18 Black 47 songs, all up-tempo, and put them on one album -- it’s good for someone going on a journey or just feeling down, and looking for something to keep their energy up. There aren’t any new songs, but a lot that are hard to get nowadays. One of the problems of having been with so many different labels is some recordings just aren’t available anymore.
Q: Albums, radio shows, plays, novels, newspaper columns -- and you also have written and produced musicals, including one you worked on with Australian author Thomas Keneally. Do you find it difficult to balance all the music and literary stuff you do?
Kirwan: I’ve found they all kind of feed off each other, that an idea may work in musical form but I might also be able to write about it. All of these activities have taken a lot of time to develop, though -- it’s like how you have to serve an apprenticeship before you can really get out and do it on your own. And I’ve generally been able to alternate between projects instead of trying to do them all at once. See, rock ‘n roll has a lot of downtime, where you’re traveling or taking a break before the next bunch of gigs, which I’ve been able to utilize for these other pursuits. I mean, if you’re not playing music you can get caught up in things that may not be very good for your health, so in a way it’s self-preservation.
Q: We’ve talked about your writing. Who do you like to read?
Kirwan: I’ve got pretty eclectic tastes. I just finished a book by Anthony Burgess -- I like him because he makes you appreciate language -- and I find myself going back to Graham Greene a lot, because of the moral code he deals with in his books. And I really liked Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn: It’s a simple story of immigration, and the language is just so clear, yet a very powerful read.
Q: What about music? What do you like to listen to?
Kirwan: I have to listen to a lot of Irish music for my radio show. There’s one great album I heard recently by Kevin Burke and Cal Scott, “Suite,” mixing classical influences in with the Irish tradition – really gorgeous. Beyond Irish music, well, I don’t actually listen to much rock ‘n roll because it’s so self-referential, even the Irish/Celtic rock. But there’s a band from London called Bible Code Sunday who I think are pretty good.
I’m always looking for good songwriters. Dylan still knocks the socks off, and I enjoy Pierce Turner. Shane McGowan was tremendous, but he’s kind of stopped writing. Still, he captured a certain gestalt of the Irish, and the Irish in America.
Q: Any change in your status as one of the “most interesting New Yorkers”? Do you still outrank Madonna?
Kirwan: I’m afraid I have been well and truly trounced by Madonna over the years. I don’t seem to make those lists anymore. Perhaps, just as well. Or maybe the Daily News has become more conservative.
This Month's CD Reviews
By Sean Smith
Review CD mailings are, for the reviewer, a random event: You get them whenever the record company opts to send them to you. So last month saw a nice little bit of symmetry when, in a matter of days, I received one CD by a quartet of Irish women, and another by a quartet of Irish men:
Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Moya Brennan, and Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill: “T with the Maggies” – These four Irish women are not just any Irish women. They have been associated with some of the most prominent bands in the late-20th century Irish music revival: Skara Brae (Triona and Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill), The Bothy Band and Relativity (Triona Ni Dhomhnaill), Clannad (Brennan) and Altan (Ni Mhaonaigh). As part of these distinguished ensembles, they fused traditional music with contemporary styles and influences -- rock, jazz and world music -- and along the way, helped bring the Gaelic of their native Donegal to the attention of a new generation of listeners, in Ireland and elsewhere.
On “T with the Maggies,” the four put forth that shared legacy of innovation, experimentation, and respect for tradition, demonstrating that their creative capacities are as strong as ever. The quality of the vocals — harmony or unison, ethereal or earthy, Gaelic or English — alone makes this one of the best albums of the past couple of years. They sound suitably Appalachian on the traditional “Wedding Dress” (you can almost picture them on a front porch somewhere in Tennessee), for example, but ably blend with the West African-flavored arrangement for “Cuach Mo Lundubh Bui.”
But that’s not to overlook their instrumental abilities, notably Triona Ni Dhomhnaill’s keyboards, Brennan’s harp and djembe, and Ni Mhaonaigh’s fiddle and hardanger fiddle. They employ these selectively and shrewdly, creating a lovely framework for, among others, “Thugamar Fhein an Samradh Linn” and “Biodh Orm Anocht.” A delicate harp-accordion-and-piano motif gently guides their rendition of Richard Thompson’s “Farewell Farewell,” on which Brennan takes the lead vocal, and the result rivals the legendary Fairport Convention/Sandy Denny standard.
One track of particular note is the group original “Mother Song,” a lament for the children who have left Ireland in search of better prospects — it’s the kind of song the Maggies’ antecedents have been singing for way too many years, and sadly, the refrain doesn’t seem to end.
The High Kings, “Memory Lane” – On this, their second CD, the High Kings continue their effort to link the full-throated, full-throttle Irish ballad song idiom (a la the Clancy Brothers et al) with a 21st-century pop-rock sensibility and style. And as was the case with the first album, they take a good chunk of their repertoire from the ballad song genre, with old reliables like “Whiskey in the Jar,” “Leaving of Liverpool,” “Star of the County Down” and “The Rising of the Moon.”
In most any overview of the High Kings, right about here it’s useful to point out that their ranks include Finbarr Clancy, who as the son of Bobby Clancy has blood ties to the ballad-group era; Martin Furey, son of Finbar Furey, no small figure himself in the Irish music revival; Brian Dunphy, one of the Three Irish Tenors, and off-spring of 1960s showband star Sean Dunphy; and Darren Holden, whose stage credits include “Riverdance.”
Compared to the first CD, “Memory Lane” has a somewhat toned-down, even nuanced feel to it. To be sure, there’s plenty of the up-tempo, hoot-and-holler showmanship, but the album plays more like an album rather than a soundtrack from a PBS special. The instrumental prowess – especially that of Clancy and Furey – is more prominent, such as on “Step It Out Mary” and “The Rising of the Moon,” and the arrangements are occasionally inspired or diverting, such as the shifting between 6/8 and 4/4 time on “Star of the County Down.” Their vocals are as impressive as ever, certainly, with an out-of-left-field yet inventive digression on “Step It Out Mary,” and a straight-out lovely a cappella rendition of “Red Is the Rose.”
The album’s ear wig (i.e., the song you keep hearing in your head) may well be “On the One Road,” a collaboration with the Wolfe Tones that was co-authored by the ’Tones’ Derek Warfield. It’s a song of optimistic reconciliation after so many years of conflict (“Night is darkest just before the dawn/from dissension Ireland is reborn/soon we’ll all be united Irishmen/make our land a nation once again”), and is almost enough to make you forget about Ireland’s new source of misery, its economic morass. Almost.
(The High Kings will perform at Boston’s Paradise Club on St. Patrick’s Day.)
A column of news and updates of the Boston Celtic Music Fest (BCMFest), which celebrates the Boston area’s rich heritage of Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton music and dance with a grassroots, musician-run winter music festival and other events during the year. – Sean Smith
The basics: When it comes to traditional Irish music in Boston, excellence knows no gender.
That’s largely the idea behind “Basic Instinct,” the March 14 edition of BCMFest’s Celtic Music Monday series at Club Passim in Harvard Square, which will showcase a pair of trios -- one male, one female -- comprising some of the area’s foremost Irish/Celtic musicians.
Accordionist Dan Gurney will join forces with flute and whistle player Jimmy Noonan and guitarist-fiddler Danny Noveck for one half of the evening, while the other half will feature fiddler Cara Frankowicz, harpist Maeve Gilchrist, and flutist Nicole Rabata. And, yes, there’s a good chance of all six musicians teaming up for a grand finale.
While it may be tempting to depict “Basic Instinct” as a battle of the sexes -- especially since it shares the title of a certain notorious film -- Gurney says the reality is quite different.
“For me, this whole concert is a great opportunity to play a few tunes with friends who might not usually play together,” says Gurney, who is the concert’s lead organizer. “I asked Jimmy and Danny if they could do it, and then asked Maeve to organize the other half. When she got Cara and Nicole, we knew what the title had to be. “The whole point of the night is to enjoy ourselves, and we hope the audience will too.”
Gurney, who has won honors in both US and Irish fleadh cheoils, is an active member of the Boston music scene. He often plays a weekly session at The Haven in Jamaica Plain with Scottish-born Gilchrist, whose harp-playing and singing styles include contemporary, jazz and world music influences.
Noonan, who teaches flute and whistle at Boston College, has performed at the Kent State, Wolftrap, and National Folk festivals, as well as other prominent folk music festivals in the US. Noveck’s eclectic musical endeavors include playing with Irish musicians such as Liz Carroll, John Whelan and Randal Bays, and contra dance bands Wild Asparagus and Fresh Fish, as well as the genre-busting American Cafe Orchestra. Gurney, Noonan and Noveck recently performed together at the newly opened Four Green Fields pub in downtown Boston.
Frankowicz is one of the mainstays of Boston’s Irish music scene, co-hosting the weekly session at The Brendan Behan Pub in Jamaica Plain. Maine resident Rabata, who performs as part of The Milliners, Naia, and the World Flute Trio, has appeared at festivals in the UK, Ireland, and France, and last year released her first CD, “Armorica.”
“This concert should be a good time - we all love playing at Passim and there will be a lot of tunes that people won’t have heard before. And if you thought ‘Basic Instinct’ was in bad taste, we’ll be announcing band names at the show!”
Tickets for the concert, which starts at 8 p.m., are $12, $6 for members of Club Passim, WGBH and WUMB. For reservations and other information, see clubpassim.org.
For more information on BCMFest, see bcmfest.com; you can also sign up for the BCMFest e-mail list via the website.