Black 47 is not your father's Irish "trad" band — not by a long shot.
This high-energy ensemble from New York City, headlining the Sonora Celtic Faire on Saturday and Sunday, features a horn line and a blend of seemingly disparate musical styles, including ska, punk, reggae and rock — all steeped with a Celtic sensibility.
Oh, and one more thing: Black 47 is not shy about taking a political stand.
The group's latest CD, "Iraq," not only questions the war but also purports to offer some insight into what it's like for the men and women doing the fighting over there. Consider the following bit of lyric, taken from "Stars and Stripes," the CD's opening cut. It was written by Black 47 leader Larry Kirwan — his message carried upon the same Beach Boys melody that propelled "Sloop John B" more than 40 years ago. The Beach Boys tune, by the way, was inspired by a traditional West Indies folk song.
Here's a sample of Black 47's take on the tune:
"The river gleams at night, stars shiver and sigh
"A tracer rips the ceiling out of the sky
"Johnnie is hurt, his blood soakin' the dirt
"Hey, medic man, don't let my friend die
" 'Cause we've been through good and bad
"From Ramadi to Baghdad
"Johnnie had my back like it was his own
"In the heat and the dust, the sweat and the rust
"Nuthin' was ever gonna stop the both of us from going home.
"So, hoist up the Stars and Stripes, gonna break out tonight
"Johnnie, hold on, man, whatever you do, don't let go
"Hey, President Bush, what are you doin' to us
"We've been through hell, man, it's time we went home."
So, why did Black 47 (even the band's name has political overtones, being derived from the bleakest year
of the Great Irish Famine, 1847) devote an entire CD to the war in Iraq?
Kirwan thought on the question for a moment.
"We formed as a political band," said the Irish expatriate from County Wexford. "We were honed on the struggle in the north of Ireland. The big issue today is Iraq. To me, the question is not why Black 47 wrote songs about the war in Iraq. The question is: Why aren't more people doing the same thing?"
On the "Iraq" CD, Kirwan said it was especially important to portray what the war is like from the perspective of the troops on the ground.
He said he has spoken with Black 47 fans who served in Iraq, calling the CD an attempt to "distill some of their stories" into song.
During its weekend performances in Sonora, Kirwan said Black 47 will offer a wide variety of musical selections — not just its latest "Iraq" offerings.
Included in the band's repertoire are everything from Irish drinking songs to civil rights and urban unrest in contemporary New York.
"Our music is full of energy," he said. "When we're on stage, we give 120 percent. You could call our music the spirit of Ireland meets the spirit of rock 'n' roll.
"We like to have fun, but, occasionally, we'll ask you to think, too."
Kirwan said Black 47 was one of the first groups to meld the Celtic sound and instrumentation — uilleann pipes, flutes, tin whistles and the like — with old-fashioned rock.
He pointed out that Black 47 predates bands such as The Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly.
Kirwan, the band's lead vocalist and principal songwriter, also plays electric guitar, keyboards and percussion.
Rounding out Black 47 are Geoffrey Blythe, tenor and soprano sax and vocals; Fred Parcells, trombone, pennywhistle and vocals; Joseph Mulvanerty, uilleann pipes and flute; Joseph "Bearclaw" Burcaw, bass and vocals; Thomas Hamlin, drums; and Mike Fazio, atmospheric guitar.
"We come from a strong improvisational background," Kirwan said. "Irish music, any music, should be free enough to explore. Music is there to be interpreted."
To hear sound clips and read more about Black 47, visit the band's Web site at www.black47.com.
Bee staff writer Mike Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2384.