March 26, 2009

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Black humor
Punk politicos Black 47 come to Capitol Center
By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

Since forming in 1989 in New York City, Irish rock band Black 47 has become known for politically charged songs dealing with everything from Irish civil rights to the current war in Iraq. But founder and vocalist Larry Kirwan says the band members try not to take themselves too seriously.
“We use humor through a lot of our music,” Kirwan said in a March 18 interview. “If you’re Irish, you have to look at life through black humor.”

Kirwan came to New York from Ireland in the mid-1970s, when disco and punk were rising in popularity side by side. He formed Black 47 (named for the worst year of the Irish Potato Famine) partly as a response to the sluggish late-’80s music landscape, and partly as an avenue for the band’s political and social views. Kirwan himself had long been involved in the Irish civil rights movement.

“We were political right from the start,” Kirwan said. “At that time, people weren’t really dealing with subjects like that. The Clash was finished and [Bob] Marley was dead. Black 47 was its own thing right from the start — we weren’t concerned about what was popular musically. There wasn’t much music you could really look up to in 1989.”

Taking their music, a high-energy style of punk, rock, reggae, jazz and traditional Irish melodies, the band gained popular recognition in 1993 with their hit single “Funky Ceili” and was soon appearing on shows like The Late Show with David Letterman and being profiled by The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly.

Never ones to shy away from hot-button issues, the group came out in 2003 against the Iraq war, a move that both gained and cost them fans.

“There are a lot of people who believe that if you go to war, you should support it,” Kirwan said. “For us, we felt it was important to support the troops, but that it was patriotic to say no, we don’t support the war. Few rock bands did that, but for us to not be what we are would betray what we were all about. But for three years, it was rough on stage — half our audience were for the war and half were against it.”

The group’s latest studio album, Iraq, was written in response to the continuing conflict, told through the point of view of the troops.

“Now it’s almost like a historical document,” Kirwan said. “All people care about now is the economy and trying to keep their jobs. What my fear is is that all of these men and women are coming back to different circumstances here, and will it be like when Vietnam soldiers came back? Will people shy away, or be there for them when they return?”

Though dedicated to creating politically informed yet entertaining music, Kirwan says that Black 47 is not out to convert people to their beliefs.

“We don’t preach when we’re on stage,” he said. “We’re not saying ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ — our songs are character-driven. You take a song like ‘Bagdad Blues’ for example. That’s just about a person in a situation at that point in their life, and that goes back to even the traditional Irish songs we do, which are about taking characters from history and learning lessons from their lives. Those are songs that we all can relate to.”

With the history and politics of Ireland at the core of the group’s songwriting, its not surprising that many of their tunes have been used in political science and history courses in colleges and high schools, and that Kirwan (who is also a playwright and author) often guest lectures on these subjects. He said there is value to everyone in understanding the history and culture of Ireland.

“There are lessons in it everyone can take,” Kirwan said. “Many Irish-Americans don’t really know their history, the roots they came from. So many are so far removed from that now. What we do is waken that interest. Every nationality has the desire to discover their roots, to find out where they came from.”

For Kirwan, it is the Irish black humor that holds a special place in his heart.

“The Irish have a way of dealing with tragedy in a positive way,” he said. “Take the Irish wake — it’s the worst tragedy you could experience, and yet they come together and celebrate the person — laugh, sing, dance, drink, and party. For Black 47, it’s not all political and serious. We want to have people leave with a smile on their face too.”


Black 47
When: Friday, March 27, at 8 p.m.
Where: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 South Main St., Concord.
Tickets: $30, 225-1111 or www.ccanh.com