Thursday, March 20, 2008

St. Patrick's Day III: Black 47

The final concert of St. Patrick's Day weekend was on St. Patrick's Day itself, Monday the 17th of March. I was recovering from an intense encounter with massive quantities of bourbon and a roomful of guitars on Sunday and was not in my best concert-going form. Nonetheless, there we were at B.B. King's Blues Club on 42nd Street--Ben and I--ready to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with the only New York City Irish band that matters--can I say that?--Black 47!

Attendance was not overwhelming, and I really stopped having any idea what we were in for when we walked down the stairs onto a group of 15 teenage girls being chaperoned through the door. So we mingled with the guys in kilts at the bar for a while during opening act Shaz Oye's set.

Shaz Oye was fresh in from Dublin. She had made her U.S. debut the night before at An Beal Bocht up in the Bronx--a venue to which I have never made my way but which gets solid reviews from my friend Nick who used to live down the block. It was one woman with a guitar, and the crowd grew increasingly less attentive over the course of her set. Sadly, I wasn't really feeling the material either: the songs simply were not reaching out to me. The whole room was getting antsy, and then the set ended. And we moved on. (Well, a table of folks from Dublin were a bit more enthusiastic than the rest of us.)

So then a good number of us moved down onto the wooden dance floor in front of the stage, and Black 47 took the stage--Larry Kirwan on guitar; Geoffrey Blythe on soprano saxophone; Fred Parcells on pennywhistle; Joseph Mulvanerty on uilleann pipes; Joe Burcaw on bass; and the ever-expressive Thomas Hamlin on drums--and they launched into "Green Suede Shoes," and it was on.

The crowd was into it and having a good time, but it was not as wild and crazy as I expected for a St. Patrick's Day show in Times Square. Larry Kirwan indeed chastised us several times for our lack of enthusiasm on the line "You'd sell your soul for a cigarette"--where the usual response is to scream cigarette and throw the same at the stage--from "40 Shades of Blue." We sang when appropriate; we danced; but the groove just wasn't overwhelming. This did not seem to diminish any of Larry Kirwan's energy: he is just amazing in terms of throwing his fist up in the air, shouting out the lyrics and yelling "Black 47!" at the end of songs. He did need to leave the stage from time-to-time to refill his pint glass.

Kirwan also chastised the New York Times from stage, cursing them for "once again" not listing the Black 47 St. Patrick's Day show and giving the Old (no longer) Grey Lady the double middle-finger.

Attention within the crowd was mostly focused on the Old Dancing Guy. If you have been to enough shows around New York, you know exactly who I am talking about. I've seen this guy at many bluegrass shows and at some rock shows, too. He's about 5'3" and has long white hair, a white beard and plastic glasses. And he just gets in the zone and dances with anybody or without anybody for as long as the show lasts. Taking a break is not his thing. He would periodically become the center of attention with lots of clapping in his direction or a bit of dosado with one of the young Irish-American lads in attendance--he would always outlast them.

You can find a complete setlist here, so I won't go through song by song.

The band played several songs from their new CD about and entitled Iraq. Many of the songs on the CD are stories told to the band by men and women who have served with the U.S. military in Iraq. The first of these was "Stars and Stripes" about one friend watching another get shot in Anbar province. Later in the set came the "Downtown Baghdad Blues," which had a pretty good groove to it. And then the first song of the encore was "Sadr City" about a gunner being driven crazy by his tour of duty in Iraq.

The instrumental work was mostly good, although there were a few tuning issues here and there and what Ben described as a "completely unnecessary trombone solo." I really enjoyed the moment when Joseph Mulvanerty put down the pipes and busted out the bodhran for a drum duet with Tommy Hamlin, and Hamlin was just great to watch throughout the night because he emotes so much while pounding on the skins. And Geoffrey Blythe's capacity for making those ancient Irish tones ring true on the soprano and alto saxophones is always impressive.

The set was nicely structured such that it culminated in "James Connolly," "40 Shades of Blue" and "Funky Ceili," three big hits, and then the encore included "Gloria" and "I Fought the Law," crowd-pleasing covers that ensured that we all left with a good taste in our mouths.

I didn't really expect to be hitting 42nd Street before 10 o'clock on St. Patrick's Day night, but there we were--Ben and I--humming the intro to "James Connelly" and walking back to the subway.

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