Few musical traditions come as rich with protest songs as Ireland's, and perhaps justly so -- its people have had plenty to speak up about. And many have taken that tradition across the ocean, blending it with other voices of protest, including Irish-born singer-songwriter (and novelist, columnist and playwright) Larry Kirwan and his group Black 47. Since 1989, the New York City-based group has combed the emotional weight of traditional Irish melodies and instruments with gutsy working-class rock 'n' roll and Kirwan's rapid-fire, Joe Strummer-esque sneer.
Joining Kirwan in the band are saxophonist Geoffrey Blythe (of Dexy's Midnight Runners), trombonist Fred Parcells, uilleann piper Joseph Mulvanerty and the rhythm section of Thomas Hamlin (drums) and Joseph Burcaw (bass). In the band's earlier repertoire, literary sketches like "Funky Ceilidh" and its updated version of "Danny Boy" addressed the struggles of those with Irish heritage both at home and in America.
In keeping with its political roots, Black 47 has just released a new album, Iraq, "an attempt to portray in song what's actually going on over there," writes Kirwan. But if the album's title and its desert-camo packaging are anything but subtle, the songs themselves offer a more complex, shaded approach to the conflict. "A warped ideology caused this war and, even though we're against it, the last thing the country needs right now is more didactic posturing," writes Kirwan.
Iraq opens with "Stars and Stripes," which takes the tune of "Sloop John B" -- the traditional song made famous by the Beach Boys -- and adds lyrics that offer a similar sentiment in different context: two soldiers waiting for a chopper to pull them out of an ambush in Anbar Province. Over the music's E Street strut, Kirwan yells the chorus: "Hey President Bush, what are you doing to us? / We've been through hell man -- it's time we went home." (Perhaps unintentionally, the song's breakdown sounds much like The Ramones' "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?")
"Sadr City" swings with a hot, horn-driven blues, like Tom Waits in a war zone, while "Sunrise on Brooklyn" sports classic R&B hooks, lending a very American nostalgia to this tale of a soldier's longing for his home while camped in the desert, on the lookout for "Johnny Jihad."
But protest songs can easily get corny, especially when topical earnestness and good intentions override more artistic concerns. The song title "Ballad of Cindy Sheehan" is a bit of a groaner; ditto yet another iteration of the tear-jerking "Skye Boat Song" on uilleann pipes, which opens "Southside Chicago Waltz." Chopper sounds at the beginning of a song are so Pink Floyd's The Wall; sound clips of President Bush seem obvious to the point of uselessness.
Sometimes it's just that the ironies of the situation are so well established, they feel like old saws. For example, "Downtown Baghdad Blues" contains the lines, "One thing for certain, one thing is clear / 20 years old, I can kill but I can't buy a beer." Yes, it's some crazy, fucked-up logic that presumes a teen-ager can handle an M-16 but not a Miller; unfortunately, it's not exactly news.
Where Black 47 succeeds on Iraq is in more ambivalent songs like "The Battle of Fallujah." That song confronts the hypocrisy of knee-jerk patriotism at home while also capturing the visceral rush of a soldier who's "never felt so alive" as when he's "kickin' ass at the Battle of Fallujah." The conflicting sentiments are best expressed in one of the song's final verses:
All you soccer moms and you politicians, keep your college darlins' at home
Don't send 'em to war, they'll be knee deep in gore
Leave that to the men who can settle the score
And if there's a draft, you know damn well yourself, this war will be over by dawn
So let's blow up this hole, your tax dollars can go
To build it up all over again.
It's hardly accidental that Black 47's visit to Pittsburgh on Sat., March 15 coincides with St. Patrick's Day festivities -- the band's the headliner in Thunderbird Café's day-long schedule, which includes with The Beagle Brothers (starting at 8:30 a.m.), Devilish Merry (1 p.m.), and Slim Forsythe & Jennie Snyder (2 p.m.). If you plan on spending this weekend celebrating Ireland's history and culture, good and bad, with Black 47, you'll also have reason to hoist a pint to the American experience, which Kirwan and company seem to see as ultimately worth celebrating, even in these dark days of conflict.
Black 47. 7:30 p.m. Sat., March 15. Thunderbird Café, 4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $20 ($23 at the door). 412-323-1919 or www.thunderbirdcafe.net