Although Ireland has produced a number of prominent pop acts--U2, Van Morrison, Sinead O'Connor, World Party, and Irish Brits the Pogues and Declan Patrick McManus (aka Elvis Costello)--few of them have successfully incorporated the island's traditional music. Given that music's emotional and lyrical richness, this neglect is disappointing, but it may be that Irish culture is too well defined to mix easily with the rapidly mutating pop scene.
In the immigrant nation of the United States, however, rock and roll from the beginning has been about mixing up indigenous (and often racially segregated) musical genres. Recent performances by two bands of Irish American musicians who continue this American tradition--New York's Black 47 and the Drovers--both highlighted the possibilities and revealed the limitations of pop music with an Irish accent.
Fronted by singer-songwriter-guitarist Larry Kirwan--an emigre from Wexford--Black 47 played a gripping, problematic 11-song set at the China Club. With a lineup that includes multiinstrumentalist-rapper-NYC police officer Chris Byrne, a two-man horn section, and a percussionist-bassist-drum machine rhythm section, the sextet recalls Sandinista-era Clash in its enthusiasm for wildly divergent musical styles and overwrought revolutionary sloganeering.
Black 47 put across their crazy salad with ferocious energy, executing extravagant arrangements precisely--the happy result of three years playing multiple sets in a Manhattan pub each week. Trombonist Fred Parcells and saxophonist Geoff Blythe packed a wallop right from the opening fusillade of "James Connolly," and they remained a focal point throughout the evening, flying into contrapuntal Dixieland jazz lines at the drop of a pin, as on "Fanatic Heart," and trading solos with wild abandon on the likes of "Fire of Freedom" and "Black 47." By the later numbers in the set, however--like "40 Shades of Blue" and "Maria's Wedding"--their relentless jamming (perhaps meant in part to extend the set) began to wear on me.
Anchored by the drum machine and rooted in David Conrad's spare, plunging bass phrases, the songs spanned quite a spectrum, from the reggae-rap-sea chantey melange of "Fire of Freedom" to the hip-hop "Rockin' the Bronx"; a continuous thread of punky garage-rock culminated in an encore medley of Van Morrison's "Gloria" and Bobby Fuller's "I Fought the Law." Byrne mixed in traditional Irish instrumentation throughout the set, playing at various points a hand-held tom-tom called a bodhran, uillean pipes, and the penny whistle (which Parcells also played). The uillean pipes--a small bagpipe with a single drone whistle--provided an elegiac setting for the mournful ballad "Fanatic Heart" and a ghostly introduction to "Black 47" (an account of the 1847 Irish potato famine). The rest of the time, however, Byrne's flourishes were absorbed into the musical pandemonium, becoming merely another part of the band's wildly eclectic sound.
Only on "Funky Ceili (Bridie's Song)" did Black 47 draw on the form of Irish traditional music rather than using it as mere embellishment. Here Kirwan's verses--talk-sung at a breakneck pace--alternated with an irresistible 24-note jig that Byrne on uillean pipes, Parcells on penny whistle, and Blythe on soprano sax traded around before each flew off in a different direction at the song's riotous conclusion. Set against the drum machine's snapping, the sparking backbeat, and Conrad's scuba-diving bottom end, the music called to mind a careening whirl around a barroom dance floor. Though it was only the third number in the set, "Funky Ceili" was the evening's peak, a knockout example of how Irish music can rock.
If Irish music plays only a limited role in Black 47's songs, lyricist Kirwan gives almost all his attention to Irish history, the experience of the immigrant Irish in America, and his own shenanigans as a self-styled Irish rogue. Unfortunately, his treatment of these subjects ranges from clumsy to disturbing and objectionable. His revolutionary rhetoric is heavy-handed to a degree that might make even Bono blush. Playing the martyred union organizer memorialized in "James Connolly," Kirwan raised his arm in a fist-clenched salute and declaimed against a dramatic backdrop of droning horns and penny whistle: "They locked us out / They banned our unions / They even feed their animals better than us." This sort of militant posturing may inspire some, but it makes me think of William Butler Yeats's declaration that "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."
Far more troubling are Kirwan's cartoonish stereotypes of Irish men. His characters--whom Kirwan has acknowledged are to some extent based on himself--drink to great excess, can't hold down a job, and behave deplorably toward women (abandoning the pregnant Bridie in "Funky Ceili," drunkenly ruining "Maria's Wedding"). Kirwan milks these stereotypes for their comic and dramatic possibilities, and it's easy to be taken in by them. He seems to feel his characters' poor behavior is redeemed by their deep passion--for women, for music, for stout. There's an undeniable appeal to this idea, but it's insupportable nonetheless, especially as regards alcohol. When Kirwan introduced "40 Shades of Blue" as "a song about alcoholism" the crowd cheered, and though it describes some harrowing aspects of alcoholism it also romanticizes them; Kirwan played up his protagonist's bravado without a hint of irony. There were a lot of kids in the all-ages crowd, and glorifying alcohol abuse--which Kirwan also did on "Maria's Wedding" and "Funky Ceili"--seemed not just immature and offensive but irresponsible.
Given my reservations about Kirwan and Black 47's somewhat wearying horn onslaught, the Drovers' Saint Patrick's Day performance at Metro, while sloppy in some respects, was refreshing. Rather than grafting Irish elements onto contemporary songs, the Drovers create contemporary pop songs out of Celtic folk traditions, much as Fairport Convention did and the Oyster Band does today with British folk.
Ironically, this Irish American quintet gave its 16-song performance on the day that commemorates the man who Christianized Ireland's druids: the Drovers recall Celtic culture's ancient pagan roots, summoning that culture's Dionysian urges. From the show's opening moments, the music had a primordial cast. Sean Cleland's violin undulated eerily as Dave Callahan's bass and Jackie Moran's cymbals pulsed behind him, until the band segued into the mysterious Celtic dirge "Book of Songs." A few numbers later, as Mike Kirkpatrick laid down a slinky guitar groove over Moran's surging cymbals and snare flourishes and Winston Damon engaged in call-and-response field hollers with the audience, the music beckoned primitive and wild, suggesting a journey deep into a dark forest.
Much of the Drovers' mysterious force can be traced to Moran's shamanistic drumming. Standing upright behind his kit, Moran drove the evening's music with a loosely fastened high-hat cymbal, producing splashing, trance-inducing grooves (on virtually every pop record the instrument is tightly fastened and produces a crisp, sharp hiss). Moran matched these stealthy beats with tom-tom rumbles and abrupt snare punctuation. In the music's most frenzied moments, he unleashed an onslaught of stampeding drum rolls, often accompanied by Damon on percussion.
The rest of the band contributed to the intrigue with touches that were at times at least as exotic as Black 47's but seemed more an organic part of the songs. Cleland's slicing, lacing fiddle lines were haunting and fleshed out the music's rhythms and textures, and Damon's hollering, percussion, and trombone blaring (often in counterpoint to Cleland's violin--which must be the strangest instrumental pairing in rock) seemed eruptions of the music's id. Callahan and Kirkpatrick were comparatively self-effacing, but at times their playing took on a Middle Eastern flavor, as on the set-closing "All Good Times Are Past and Gone." The band also brought out members of the Trinity Dance Company, a local folk-dance troupe, on one number--five or six girls in full costume, the youngest of whom couldn't have been more than six, a colorful flourish, if somewhat incongruous at Metro.
The downside to the Drovers' great energy and creativity is their inability or unwillingness to deliver a more focused performance. Like Black 47, the Drovers engage in extended instrumental jams; but their solos lack Black 47's cohesion, at times wandering into dead ends and hanging slack. I understand that their loose, open-ended experiments play well with Deadheads, but that experimentation can rob the music of its drive, and the band's energy dissipates. The worst instance came shortly after the Trinity dancers' appearance, when Damon and Moran engaged in a bodhran-African drum duet, with Damon adding field hollers, that must have lasted almost 15 minutes. It was late, and this gambit lost most of the crowd and all of the band's momentum, which it only picked up again at the set's end.
The Drovers could use some of Black 47's discipline and focus. And Black 47 needs Larry Kirwan to acquire some common sense and write a few more songs that are the equals of "Funky Ceili." But if these two bands don't indulge themselves too much, they should be able to effectively infuse pop music with an Irish lyricism, wit, and fervor. And that's a prospect music fans of any nationality can toast.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mark Seliger, Y. Gonzales.