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SOUND BITES FROM BIG GREEN APPLE : New York Rockers Black 47 Chronicles Strife That Still Scars the Emerald Isle

July 15, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Irish rock is as mainstream as wearing green on St. Patrick's Day. U2, Sinead O'Connor, Van Morrison, Bob Geldof and many others have seen to that.

Rock about Ireland and the Irish isn't so readily found. That's where Black 47 comes in.

The band (which plays Saturday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and Sunday at Bogart's in Long Beach) hails from New York City, but its debut album, "Fire of Freedom," deals with the Irish experience in far greater detail than you get from any of the big names associated with the Dublin rock scene.

Black 47's leader, Larry Kirwan, grew up in Ireland and emigrated to New York in the mid-1970s. His songs colorfully chronicle the Irishman-in-America saga from a personal vantage point that's alternately funny and poignant. But they also reach back to evoke key events in his homeland's history.

The song "Black 47" is a spectral depiction of the mid-19th-Century potato famine from which the band draws its name (1847, or "Black 47," having been a particularly devastating year in the famine in which millions perished or were forced to leave Ireland to survive). "James Connolly" is a blood-pumping heroic anthem that takes the listener into the heat of the 1916 Easter Rebellion against the British (the uprising in Dublin by Irish nationalists was doomed, but it sparked the movement that led to Ireland's independence a few years later).

Kirwan doesn't neglect his own history as a musician. "New York, N.Y. 10009" recalls his hard knocks on the New York City underground rock scene during the early 1980s, and "Rockin' the Bronx" mixes rap cadences with traditional jig-and-reel whirls on pipes and tin whistle as he gleefully barks rhymes that tell the story of Black 47.

That mixture of styles is a Black 47 signature. The merger of rock and traditional Irish airs and dance rhythms is the basis of its sound, but the six-man band (only three of whom are Irish born or Irish-American) also gets in the occasional reggae lick. When the sax-trombone horn section gets pumping, the E Street Band leaps to mind--an association reinforced by Kirwan's ability to color his songs with characters and specific settings, a hallmark of Bruce Springsteen's early days.

Kirwan, who has had five plays produced in small New York theaters, comes off on record as a broadly theatrical firebrand with a scratchy nasal yelp that couldn't be further from the classic Irish beauty of a Bono or a Van Morrison (sometimes his performances go too far over the top and the dramatics seem forced).

The idea for Black 47 came to him in 1989; until then, he says, he hadn't brought Irish themes or musical styles into his music in a series of New York City bands. Kirwan, who sings and plays guitar, hooked up with Chris Byrne, an Irish-American New York City cop who had learned to play the traditional Uilleann pipes and tin whistle during boyhood vacations in the old country (Byrne must decide by next month whether to return to the NYPD after a yearlong leave of absence or to cast his lot completely with Black 47).

They assembled the band that also includes Irish-born drummer Tom Hamlin, Englishman Geoffrey Blythe (a former member of Dexy's Midnight Runners) on saxophone, and two non-Irish Americans, trombonist Fred Parcells and bassist David Conrad.

As chronicled in "Rockin' the Bronx," Black 47 made early approaches to Irish neighborhood bars but didn't have much luck serving its only part-Irish stew of musical influences to drinkers who wanted "Danny Boy." The group eventually found a home in a Manhattan bar called Paddy Reilly's, attracted a growing following, and landed a deal with SBK Records. Ric Ocasek, the former Cars leader, became a fan and co-produced "Fire of Freedom" with Kirwan.

The album hasn't been a chart hit, but Kirwan said in a recent interview that he's pleased with the progress Black 47 has made through word-of-mouth and a smattering of MTV play.

"Even in New York the audience is broadly based now," he said of the band's ability to branch out from its early core of fans drawn to the novelty of a rock band with a decidedly Irish flavor. "Hopefully, good music transcends race and ethnicity."

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