Black 47 - Bittersweet Sixteen
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Black 47
Bittersweet Sixteen
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Larry Kirwan's never been a quiet immigrant. Since his green suede Irish boots hit American ground some thirty years ago, the man's been rocking and screaming his heart out, and never more fiercely than when he's at the helm of Black 47, New York City's cherished, barroom-shaking "house band." When pub owners complained about the band's socialist lyrics, their attitude or their volume, Black 47 just turned it all up. No one complained about the packed shows.

Black 47's fans are among the most loyal in rockdom; fists, flags and dark pints raised high in the air at shows. Most can sing all the words, intricate and rhyme-strewn though Kirwan's literate, history-laced lyrics may be. Movie stars, professors, cops, clergy and unrepentant apostates all mix happily at their gigs to band's jigging, rapping, reggae-loping, reel-flavored sound. Uileann pipes and bodhran are stirred with sax, Stratocaster and a brass section to awaken the dead. With this arsenal, Black 47 has birthed a genre and a generation of American Celtic rockers.

Yet Kirwan and his mates will take on even their own fans if need be. When the US blundered into Iraq, Black 47 called this war an unmitigated disaster and a betrayal. Some fans could not take the cold reality of that statement, sung straight up, and they walked away from the band, but Black 47 kept playing on, two hundred gigs a year and little time for parting tears. It's a revolution they're about, albeit a peaceful, dancing one, and soon enough, the fans showed up, dancing and yelling along.

And so it's gone for Black 47 for some Bittersweet Sixteen years. It's not just a greatest hits collection. The set includes much material not otherwise available, chosen and sequenced to give the arc of the band's dramatic story. There's the angry exile in "Home of the Brave," just on these shores, ripped off from the get-go and determined not to give in. Just one more night out, one more "Funky Ceili" session, perhaps a love to be found in this strange land. Then there are the drunken revellers trying to forget with booze, dance and music, but the real world keeps coming back to mind. "Downtown Baghdad Blues," "South Side Chicago Waltz" and even a reprise of that 1960s chestnut "For What It's Worth" call up war and loss. As Kirwan declares at the start of a trilogy of songs about America's recent wars, "One thing holds true, rich men start wars and the working class gets to fight 'em."

Black 47 take this grand CD out with some reflections on what it all means, but never without a wink and reel. - Bill Nevins

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