This weekend, on October 3rd the Opera House presents the New York City-based Irish rock group, Black 47 (www.Black47.com). One of the truly hard-working groups around, Black 47 tours relentlessly and is currently preparing to release a new CD. As if that’s not enough, bandleader Larry Kirwan is working on several new and ongoing projects of his won. Fortunately, he found the time to answer a few questions:
MCOH: Sorry to ask oft-repeated questions, but: who were your biggest musical influences as you were growing up? Any music out there today that attracts your notice?
LK: I can honestly say that my influences were legion. On the one hand I was exposed to all the traditional music of Co. Wexford where I grew up allied with the amazing variety of music that one heard on the BBC, Pirate Radio Caroline, and Irish state radio. Dylan, Lennon, Hendrix and American folk music were big influences. And like many Irish people I was greatly into the Black music of the day – Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and all the Stax and Motown artists.
I can’t say that there’s anything “modern” that blows me away. Rock music seems to be very referential – meaning that I can recognize all the influences, so that tends to take away from the originality factor – which is pretty important to me. I do like some rap and hip-hop, as much for the beats as the lyrical content. I do admire a lot of World music – mostly because the rhythms are intricate and I don’t know exactly what’s being said – which helps with the inevitable banality factor.
MCOH: In addition to being the front man for Black 47, you’re a solo artist, an author and playwright, an actor, a husband and father, and a political activist. How do you find the time?
LK: Well, I’m a bad sleeper and rarely get more than 5 hours a night. I also don’t watch television on any kind of regular basis. That gives me more time in a day than most people. But I also find it refreshing to go from one genre to another. Writing novels and plays is almost relaxing after a night of playing music. But then I’ve put in the time learning the craft of both of those disciplines so that it’s pleasurable to stretch yourself, in the same way that someone who has learned carpentry takes pleasure in fashioning wood.
I also do a weekly column for the Irish Echo http://www.irishecho.com and that tends to keep my writing skills fairly well honed. And I do a weekly radio show, Celtic Crush for Sirius XM. That really helps with communication skills and just basically thinking and speaking under pressure.
I guess what I’m saying somewhat un-artfully is that doing many things tends to help individual skills and there’s rarely a dull moment.
MCOH: Would you consider yourself a poet or a storyteller?
LK: Where I come from a culture where you would never label yourself a poet – that’s an honor that’s bestowed on you by your community. But to be honest, I don’t consider myself a poet. It’s something you should work on from an early age and it’s far too late for me – the last thing the world needs right now is another mediocre poet.
Still, I do read poetry for enjoyment and stimulation – if you write songs and you don’t read poetry, you’re pretty much working in a dark room on a summer’s day. I also use certain poetic principles to work on songs, plays and novels. I love the sounds of words and their deep roots in the culture and language of people.
I do write a lot of character-driven or story songs. In many ways I’m updating the Irish traditional form of song – by using the old structure but adapting it to reflect current psychological and social realities. So, I suppose I am a bit of a storyteller.
MCOH: You’re hard at work on a new CD, any details we can leak to the press?
LK: Black 47’s CDs have always been very varied and this one is no exception. I made a point of trying to write songs that would give the brass and pipe players a chance to really shine. On this one we get a chance to explore our Latin and Klezmer influences, among others, while still maintaining the overall Black 47 sound. So, I think it’s strong musically. There are songs on there that are a bit more pop and dance oriented than IRAQ, our last album – not surprisingly.
The CD will also containe one of the most intense songs that we’ve recorded – Red Hugh O’Donnell. He was a childhood hero but I could never nail him. With the war in Afghanistan I was able to put him in a modern context, oddly enough – a man totally on edge, fearful that Queen Elizabeth I is trying to poison him. A religious fundamentalist, passionate and driven but whose time is running out and whose culture is being over run.
There is also a “shaggy dog” song about the Long Lost Tapes of Jimi Hendrix and where they actually can be found.
MCOH: Have you come up with a five-word description for the band? If not, we’ll take the 20-word version.
LK: I wish I could do that. It seems that Black 47 is just its own thing. You have a rock & roll and Irish base on which you toss a lot of lyrical ideas and a defined political sensibility, mix in a willingness and delight in taking risks – we have never done the same set in over 2000 gigs – and that’s Black 47.
MCOH: When you get weary, how do you manage to put out the energy each night onstage?
LK: When you hit that first big guitar chord, everything changes. If you trust the songs and the musicians around you, the energy will come. And if it doesn’t there’s always Jameson’s.
MCOH: What Irish immigrants endured in the coal regions of Pennsylvania is still on very much on people’s minds around Jim Thorpe, given voice by an ongoing debate over whether the Mollie Maguires were freedom fighters or something else. Does the Irish narrative so prevalent in our region affect your approach to the show at the Opera House?
LK: Black 47 has strong political elements and sensitivities so we don’t really need to take a particular approach to any area. Oddly enough, I’ve tried a number of times to write a song about the Mollie Maguires, but was never able to find a distinctive way into the heart of the story. Who knows though, maybe some day. It took me 15 years to find a way inside Bobby Sands head and that lead to the song Bobby Sand MP. I think our song, James Connolly, will have resonance in the Jim Thorpe area because Connolly was much more about the rights of the working people than he was about Irish nationalism. I’m looking forward to playing in the Mollies area. I’ve always enjoyed performing in Scranton and think that Black 47 will be a good fit for Jim Thorpe.