Another St Patrick’s Day, Long Ago: Black 47 At BB Kings, March 17th, 2012, Reviewed
(Richard is dead, Black 47 and BB Kings (and BB King) are gone, as for Mary, the last time I saw her she ignored me, and the world is coming to an end -IL)
In the late 1980s I was dating an Irish girl named Mary Brannigan and I would take her to Paddy O’Reilly’s on Second Avenue to see Black 47. I knew the bar well, my friend Richard Fantina used to live in the apartment on the first floor, but he had left to Miami a couple of years earlier and somewhere along the line they had built a small stage..
This was very early in B47, if not leader Larry Kirwan’s, career, Larry had already been in the punk rock band Major Thinker. The first album had yet to be released, “Funky Celli” had a totally different ending, and Larry sold what we’d now call mixtapes on cassette only. It was a raucous show, with the band climbing on tables and proclaiming their truth to the skies.
And Black 47 were the greatest rock and roll band in the world. Celtic rockers who not only sang of, but lived, the Irish immigrant life in New York City. But not the potato famine refugees becoming cops and politicians that had begun NYC’s histoory, rather wild eyed rockers living on the lower East Side and playing CBGB’s twice a month. A one of us first generation, straight outta civil war torn, recession ravaged Belfast, American dreamer.
Twenty odd years later and it is St. Patrick’s Day at BB King’s and Black 47 will be playing a two hour and a half set, simulcast live on Sirius Radio, if these fucking bagpipes will get off the stage.The room is packed out and I had thought I’d have dinner at the club but there are no tables so I work my way to the side of the stage while a woman tells me that on top of the “Scotts Porridge Oats” theme and “Amazing Grace”, the bagpipes are playing a Kirwan song.
Then Kirwan is playing a Kirwan song. The band consists of tenor sax, trombone, bagpipes and the usual suspects, and as he does so often, Larry lays into “Green Suede Shoes”. It’s a good song. The band is good. Larry is a born band leader. The sound veers between rock and Irish folk with some Reggae thrown in for good measure. But for some reason I’m not feeling it the way I did. There is a reason why Black 47 never became what they might have: he has only two type of songs, the great and the not so great. “Funky Ceili”, ’40 Shades Of Blue”, “Rockin’ In The Bronx”, “Izzy’s Irish Rose” -these are all stunning achievement. Perfect evocations of his sound and vision. A long “Rockin’ In The Bronx” near the end of the set is so wonderful and life affirming, it is almost ridiculous to complain about anything here.
And a song with his half-sister, Mary Carey, is so great it makes you wonder if the man just got lucky genes. To see him share a mic with his sister is a pure pleasure and the underlying theme of St. Patrick’s Day is Family, extended and extending family, and by bringing out his sister he works a perfect metaphor for how he shares the day.
But… I saw the Pogues precisely a year before and the truth is, whether Shane MacGowan can or can not stand up straight notwithstanding, Shane is one of the greatest Irish songwriters of all time, Larry isn’t. He is clumsy on a song like “Fires Of Freedom”, he should toss away a crap line like “You can knock me down, even strip search me” not make it his hook. “Sad Sad Chicago Waltz”, “James Connolly”, first song of the encore “James Joyce” rhymes with “of course”. Er, why? He can be strident, difficult, unyielding in his opinions and all the nuance seems to come from him being a good guy.
Kirwan is a Renaissance man, he writes books, plays, music, he is in his own ways a legend. But over two and a half hours his limitations become clear. The band is long winded, they can be a bore, for all their efforts, for all Larry’s efforts, the songs aren’t always quite there. He thinks he is writerly lyricist but sometimes he is prosaic and while Black 47 can blow the Saw Doctors off stage, or Flogging Molly for that matter, whenever they might choose. Still, it isn’t quite there.
Maybe it was me, I was hungry and standing for hours on end always pisses me off. And I don’t know their material well enough for many of the songs to simply connect with me. From trombone solos to Irish dancers, to Kirwan’s honest and powerful sense of self and good will right in the middle of stage, there is no reason why this show shouldn’t have blown us away. But it doesn’t.I’ve been pouring through B47’s back pages as I write this, and they have quite a few awesome songs they didn’t even play,
An extended encore included “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Gloria” and “I Fought The Law” . It was wonderful. They were wonderful.
In the end, Black 47 were the greatest rock and roll band in the world in 1990 and they never could sustain it. And I can hear what bothers me, a certain quality in the songs… fuck it, I give up.