Black 47 is Back
Celtic rockers return to Scranton for show at Kildare’s
New York City Celtic rock band Black 47 was formed in 1989 by Larry Kirwan and Chris Byrne with one main focus; they were going to do things their own way and take it gig by gig. After more than two decades on the road and numerous recordings, Black 47 will make its return to the 570 this week with an intimate performance at Kildare’s Irish Pub, 119 Jefferson Avenue, Scranton, on Sunday, Sept. 9. Doors open at 6 p.m. with Black 47 taking the stage at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20. We recently spoke with lead singer Kirwan about Black 47’s Scranton history, their live shows and their modern take on traditional Irish storytelling.
Black 47 is set to play Kildare’s Irish Pub in Scranton this weekend.
Yes; the triumphant return to Scranton! Did you ever hear about the history of Black 47 in Scranton?
No, but we would love to.
It must have been about 12 years ago. We were doing a double gig, playing The University of Scranton and State College later that night. The word had gotten out that it was going to be a big party. It seemed the whole college started to drink around 9 a.m. So we arrive and the whole place is lit up! It was a great show, but they actually brought their cans of beer into the hall. There were just so many people and everyone was having a good time and at some point, someone told security that it can’t go on like this. They told us to stop the show. You can never stop a show. I said “I can’t stop! We gotta go on ‘til we finish!” So we did, and then we got banned from The University of Scranton. We haven’t been back since.
It’s good to have you back.
I always loved Scranton; the Molly Maguires and the coal mining. It was just one of those things that happened.
Talk about Black 47’s upcoming tour.
We’ve been on tour for 22 years now. We don’t really stop. We take a couple weeks off through the year and that’s pretty much it. We’ve been touring since October 1989.
How do you keep the energy going for so long?
We never did the same set twice. That comes from the old rock ‘n’ roll feel where you’re looking for that moment of transcendence on stage. You can’t really get that if you’re doing a show. We change the set every night. We have 13 or 14 albums with so many songs it’s almost mathematically impossible to repeat a show. It also to keeps us on our toes. You can’t fall into any habits. Every time you do it there is something new happening and you have to react to it. We always try to break the fourth wall down between the people and ourselves. Sometimes we do requests and sometimes it’s better than what I had in mind. We’re looking for more of an explosion than a slow gradual build up.
You talked about the old rock ‘n’ roll feel. How has the band evolved throughout the years?
A lot of it comes from the origins of the band. Chris Byrne and I formed it. I met him at a bar one night and his band was breaking up. He had six weeks of dates to do, we started drinking and I said, “I’ll do them with you.” The idea was that we would do original music rather than cover music. Quickly, we got as many original songs together as possible. There was always that feeling that you’re under the gun and you’re not sure what’s going to happen. We went to Irish bars in the Bronx and they were expecting four sets of covers. Owners and the patrons of these places were outraged; they wanted to hear U2 and whatever. We were doing whatever we were doing and probably not doing it that well. We were playing five nights a week. After two or three months, we were a good band. We were political right from the start (Northern Ireland and Iraq). The feeling never really let up. It wasn’t all planned out; we were taking it gig from gig.
For people who may not be familiar with your extensive body of work, how would you describe Black 47, the band, and the storytelling that goes along with it?
I always thought of it as storytelling in the old Irish tradition, but that old Irish story telling had become stale. I found the Clancy Brothers and groups like that were great in their day, and really changed the way people listened to Irish music. We felt that had gone really stale by the time we started in 1989. There was still the situation to be dealt with in the Northern Ireland and we were writing modern songs, rather than songs that people have written 30 years ago or a 100 years ago. We were updating all of this. Sometimes we would be using traditional Irish melodies, but would also add bridges and intros to those and make the lyrics relevant to what was going on today rather than always looking back in history for inspiration. And not looking back to Ireland for inspiration all the time. We started as an Irish-American band that was modern and using the modern beats rather than the folk beat of yesterday. We were using hip-hop and reggae and funk. We were rooted in traditional storytelling, but we were really updating all of that and making it relevant.
Was there any kind of backlash with mixing traditional with modern?
Oh yeah. We thought this is what we do, if you don’t like it go someplace else. That was our attitude right from the start. You didn’t have to take a smile on stage. You took whatever mood you were in from the day and you turned it around though music. We weren’t the smiley-clap- your- hands band. We came from the CBGB scene, so it was more in your face whereas at the Irish pubs, they wanted the band to be in the background. We weren’t into that. We brought our own floodlights from the start and insisted that the TV be thrown off so you would have to look at us and we’re not a particularly pretty sight. We were never a boy band.
Where does Black 47 fit into today’s music?
I don’t really think in those terms because it could be a sobering moment. We’ve always done our own thing and luckily we’ve always had a following. We had two major record deals and we were probably the only band that was never told what to do in some way. They couldn’t figure out what to do with us.
What does the future hold for Black 47?
I always go by Jim Morrison’s “The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near.” Right from the start; it’s one gig to the next. One day it will be over, but in the meantime we’re along for the ride.
— tom graham