You know what you’re going to get with a Black 47 album: soulful, danceable rock and roll embellished with a funky horn section, fiddle, uilleans and pipes. More than anything else, it’s the distinctive yelp of front man Larry Kirwan, talk-singing a rapid-fire flow of witty lyrics in a thick Irish accent. Kirwan’s vocal style may not be for everyone – mellifluous it’s not – but there’s no denying his rambunctious enthusiasm. It kickstarts the 47s sloppy, joyous musical energy, and it’s all we listeners can do to hang on for the ride.
The latest installment in Black 47’s invasion of America, Bankers and Gangsters slides back into that well-worn groove – a safe haven of sorts after the political statement of their 2008 album Iraq. It’s now 20 years since Black 47 pioneered this addictive musical hybrid dubbed Celtic Rock, known for its Irish-American themes and raucous live performances. Time for Kirwan to poke loving fun at Celtic Rock’s clichés with the track “Celtic Rocker,” a bouncy sketch of an American girl besotted with the Irish music scene — giving Kirwan an excuse to name-check the bands, the clothes, the pubs, the festivals that keep Celtic rock alive in America.
Celtic rock certainly is a hybrid, in more ways than one. Black 47 has its feet in both Ireland and America, as well as its musical roots in everything from reggae to jazz. On Bankers and Gangsters, Kirwan widens his scope beyong the Irish immigrant neighborhoods to celebrate the whole great panoply of New York City.
“Long Hot Summer Comin’ On” is a Springsteen-like tribute to downtown rock clubs, the late great CBGB’s in particular. Despite its literary-sounding title, “Yeats and Joyce” follows a rueful stroll around Manhattan, mourning a lost love. The ebullient jig “Izzy’s Irish Rose” updates the story of a Lower East Side Jewish-Irish romance, comically bursting into a horah in the bridge. American soul and funk percolate through “That Summer Dress” (“that summer dress spent most of August on my floor”).
Topical satire is another Black 47 hallmark, and the ska-flavored title track “Bankers and Gangsters” chronicles – what else? — the current economic crisis. Not that Kirwan has anything new to say, but why not reel off a catalog of the usual suspects? The song’s jaunty chorus begs a singalong — “Bankers and gangsters, soldiers and dancers / All locked together in default harmony / With the financial chancers, and all manner of high rolling romancers.”
Eventually, however, the scene is bound to move to Ireland, where Kirwan’s bug for Irish politics leads him a bit off course. Esoteric references riddle songs like “Rosemary (Nelson),” a tribute to the slain civil rights lawyer, or the folk ballad “Red Hugh,” about the rebel 16th-century Celtic chieftain, and the songs lose their way in reiterating old grievances. But Kirwan’s impish sense of humor resurfaces “The Lost Tapes of Hendrix,” a shaggy tale involving a secret cache of master tapes, a Dublin bank vault, and an American schemer bested by the canny Irish. A droll vein of old music hall comedy runs through the “Wedding Reel,” featuring Kathleen Fee in a saucy duet between a slacker husband and his spitfire wife.
Like many an Irishman before him, Kirwan’s got a sentimental streak a mile wide. Witness the nostalgic “The Islands,” a homesick look back at his Wexford home, and the impossibility of retrieving the past. You don’t need to be Irish to get a little tearful at “Bás in Éireann,” the lament of petty thieves deported to Australia, or Kirwan’s rendition of the plangent Irish folk classic “One Starry Night.” (Kirwan comes this close to murdering that beautiful ballad – but he’s so damn earnest, you almost forgive him. Almost.)
Bankers and Gangsters is a genial grab-bag of songs, and though it’s no Major New Statement, I’m guessing that the Black 47 faithful won’t care. Nor should you. It’s the rollicking spirit of the album that matters — that’s always been Black 47’s secret ingredient, and Larry Kirwan and company deliver the goods yet again.