Irish bands fuse rock and tradition

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, March 10, 2004) – Plenty of Irish and Celtic bands are embarking on creative, almost promiscuous fusions, combining ancient melodic and instrumental strategies with the sounds of the contemporary nightclub.

For 14 years, long before Martin Scorsese pointed his lens toward the “Gangs of New York,” Black 47 has been the musical incarnation of the Irish-American experience. Larry Kirwan’s Irish-inflected rock and r&b dramas offer listeners a veritable semester or two’s worth of the history, culture and sociology of 150 years of Irish history, from the black year of 1847 when famine back home provoked the first great migration of Irish to these shores, up to the present day, when New York’s Irish community, which still makes up much of the city’s fire department, was especially hard-hit on 9/11.

Black 47’s new album, “New York Town” (Gadfly) continues to mine this vein while broadening its palette with guest appearances by quintessentially New York singers and musicians including Suzzy Roche, David Johansen, Eileen Ivers and Rosanne Cash. “Fiona’s Song” is a touching duet by Cash and Kirwan and “Staten Island Baby” is a jazzy swing number featuring Kirwan and Johansen trading verses. Kirwan’s songs boast the epic, operatic quality of early Springsteen and the fiery urgency of The Clash, but his voice – soulful, yearning, honest, and very Irish – is all his own.

Black 47 headlines the Holyoke Fleadh at the Holyoke War Memorial Auditorium on Saturday, March 20, along with The Tossers, Enter the Haggis, The Pubcrawlers, Dicey Riley and The Bards. The first annual Holyoke Fleadh – the word is Gaelic for “grand party” -- is presented by Celebrate Holyoke in conjunction with the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which claims to be the nation’s second largest and takes place on Sunday, March 21. Black 47 will be back in the area on May 8 when the band performs at the Celebration of Celts at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in Chatham, N.Y.

Next Tuesday marks the simultaneous release of new live CDs and DVDs by The Saw Doctors, as well as the Irish group’s appearance at the Hippodrome in Springfield. “Live in Galway” (ShamTown) was recorded last year in the group’s hometown. The live album captures the group’s energetic, mainstream classic-rock approach – like Black 47, there is more than a little of Springsteen in Davy Carton’s anthems, but unlike Black 47, there isn’t as much Irish folk to balance it out. Instead, they’re just a lively rock band – think the Rolling Stones with an Irish accent.

On its new CD, “Something Beautiful” (Zoe), Canadian group Great Big Sea – performing tonight at Pearl Street in Northampton – marries pop melodies, anthemic folk-rock and Celtic influences. Whistles and flutes still color the group’s mix, but some songs steer closer to the introspective pop folk of Counting Crows, the Push Stars and John Mayer. The group hasn’t put ethnic roots music totally behind – the album includes a pulsating version of “Beat the Drum” by Scotland’s Runrig, a rendition of the traditional ballad, “John Barbour,” and an instrumental jig, “Chafe’s Celidh.” The sound of a Newfoundland sea chantey is never hard to hear beneath the pop-rock mix.

Canadians Taxi Chain hail from Toronto and play a more r&b-influenced Celtic fusion. On the group’s new album, “Smarten Up!” (Northern Blues), bagpipes, mandolins and whistles vie with guitars, keyboards and a horn section for primacy. The group’s approach on the CD is aptly summarized in the title to one instrumental track, “James Brown Ate My Bagpipe.”

With traditional Irish group Solas, Karan Casey established her bona fides as one of the best contemporary Irish folksingers. On last year’s solo album, “Distant Shore” (Shanachie), the pure-voiced Casey – who is at the Iron Horse in Northampton tomorrow night at 7 -- stepped out slightly from the confines of tradition to embrace some modern textures and repertoire, including trap drums and new songs by Billy Bragg and Tim O’Brien. It wasn’t anything radical, but it allows Casey to express more aspects of herself than those to which audiences were previously exposed.

Warming up the crowd for Casey is the Pioneer Valley’s own Tim Eriksen. As heard on his terrific eponymous solo album, the former Cordelia’s Dad frontman is a scholar and accomplished performer of early folk music. Eriksen recently received widespread acclaim for his vocals and arrangements of traditional “Sacred Harp,” or “shape note,” songs used in the Oscar-nominated “Cold Mountain” movie and soundtrack.

Eriksen’s Iron Horse appearance, at which he will perform original and traditional songs (some from “Cold Mountain”), a cappella and with his own banjo, fiddle and guitar as accompaniment, coincides with the annual Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention taking place Saturday and Sunday at the Northampton Center for the Arts.

On her new solo album, “Sweet Liberty” (World Village), Susan McKeown, the lead singer of Chanting House, sings mostly traditional ballads in acoustic arrangements. She stretches out, however, on “Oro Mhile Gra,” which finds common ground between Irish call-and-response and music from Mali, and on “Eggs in Her Basket,” a Gypsy number on which she is joined by a Mexican mariachi outfit. The closing number, “When I Was on Horseback,” features evocative fiddling by the late Johnny Cunningham, eerie whistles by Donogh Hennessy, and a drum loop that puts the number into Angelo Badalamenti territory.

Those who want to celebrate the Irish influence on rock in the privacy of their homes can’t miss with a new CD called “Greatest Irish Bands” (Hip-O), featuring hit singles by artists including U2, Thin Lizzy, Sinead O’Connor, Boomtown Rats, Clannad, the Pogues, the Cranberries, the Corrs, Hothouse Flowers and Van Morrison, among others. The CD also includes an unusual bonus DVD featuring the classic cult film, “Sightings of Bono.”

(Holyoke Fleadh, 413-536-4611 x18; Pearl Street and Iron Horse, 413-586-8686; Hippodrome, 413-587-0600; Sacred Harp Singing Convention, 413-773-8208; Club Helsinki, 413-528-3394)

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 12, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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