Black 47
Connecticut Irish Festival,
North Haven, CT
(24 June 2000)

I learned of the Connecticut Irish Festival during a chance encounter with the members of SixMileBridge in a Boston Irish pub during a New England excursion two days before. An Internet hookup in the public library in Salem, Mass., told me the full weekend's itinerary, and I vowed to make it back to Connecticut in time to see Black 47, New York's powerful Irish punk 'n' funk band, perform on Saturday.

Needless to say, I got there (I wouldn't be writing this otherwise, now would I?) and, after securing the last available hotel room for miles around, trotted over to the festival grounds for the evening performance. Fortunately for Irish music fans, the heat of the afternoon had cooled enough to soothe even a bad left-arm sunburn, a memento of my travels.

The show began with a horn fanfare (Geoffrey Blythe on sax and Fred Parcells on trombone), leading into the Michael Collins anthem "Big Fellah." The opening number was unfortunately marred by the loss of Larry Kirwan's vocal mic midway through the song -- a problem which plagued him for much of the show -- and a lot of instrumental vamping didn't really help. "Big Fellah," a grand song about Irish hero and statesman Collins, doesn't have a lot of standout instrumentation to fill the dead air, but Kirwan, wearing his trademark green suede shoes, managed to save the moment by getting a portion of the crowd to sing it for him.

The band kept at it with dogged determination, even when the soprano sax solo at the start of the second tune failed to produce a peep through the speakers. Frustration won out the moment -- the tune fizzled out midway as the crew tried to find the sound problem and the band left the stage.

If nothing else, it was a boon for late-night sales at the neighboring beer tent, where Murphy's stout and amber competed with Bud and Bud Lite for attention. Ask me, it was no contest.

As the minutes dragged on, drummer Thomas Hamlin gave the crowd an impromptu percussion solo. Bass player Andrew Goodsight turned it into a grooving jam. By the time uilleann piper Chris Byrne strapped on his gear, Kirwan's mic was working again.

The crowd was nothing if not appreciative of the effort, and quickly forgave the delay as the band kicked back into things with "Those Saints," a track off their latest CD, Trouble in the Land. The tune mixes a pipe reel, a bit of brassy New Orleans jazz and Kirwan's distinct brand of vocal rap.

If anyone in the tent still needed winning over, they did it next with one of Black 47's signature songs, "Funky Ceili." The band didn't even flinch when all the lights went out -- fortunately, the problem this time was fixed in seconds.

The screaming, bouncing audience, which minutes before had been spread throughout the show tent, quickly compressed into a pulsating mass centered immediately in front of Kirwan. And when Kirwan's mic cut out again at the start of the reggae hit "Three Little Birds," they filled in the words for him at top volume. As the song says, "every little thing is gonna be all right," and so it seemed -- what could have been a disaster was overcome by the band's persistence and the crowd's unflappable enthusiasm.

And the band played on. The song "Desperate" was followed with a hard-rocking set of reels (called "The Reels"), which filled the stage with at least a half-dozen high-kicking, mostly barefooted stepdancers. The band responded by making room onstage and extending the tune to keep them dancing longer. Kirwan even did his own form of stephopping in time. Then they cranked the energy level even higher for the autobiographical song "Rockin' the Bronx."

The lively "Different Drummer" and "Living in America" were next, and everyone in the crowd seemed to know the words ... shouting out choice phrases like a battle cry. Black 47 may not be a traditional band, but they've always known which buttons to push to raise a crowd's Irish pride and nationalistic fervor.

The crowd demanded -- and got -- another forceful, moving anthem in "James Connolly," during which many people raised clenched fists in support.

The soprano sax, trombone and uillean pipe combined to give "40 Shades of Blue" a purposefully sour, drunken introduction. The crowd, of course, loved it. The show wrapped up with the lovelorn "Blood Wedding." Unable to escape without an encore, the band returned to the stage to perform "Like a Rolling Stone" as Dylan never imagined it, with horn and pennywhistle riffs giving it a distinctive Black 47 flair.

The Connecticut Irish Festival is a small event in its 12th year. It still has plenty of room to grow, something I hope organizers will take advantage of. As long as they continue to bring in top-notch acts like Black 47 and Sunday's headliner, SixMileBridge, I suspect the festival will prosper.

[ by Tom Knapp ]