It’s a match made in history.
Black 47 is the Irish rock band formed 25 years ago in New York. Saturday night, the band performs for the International Irish Famine Commemoration Gala in New Orleans.
The Irish government established the annual famine commemoration in 2009 to memorialize the 1 million people who died during the potato blight that struck Ireland in the 1840s. The event also serves to remember the 2 million Irish men, women and children who fled the country when starvation stalked the land.
Black 47 named itself after the blackest year of the Great Hunger, 1847.
New Orleans follows Sydney, Boston, Liverpool, New York and Toronto as the site of the famine commemoration. As for Black 47, it’s been commemorating the famine since singer-songwriter Larry Kirwin and some fellow Irish expatriates created the group in 1989.
“When we formed, nobody talked about the famine,” Kirwin recalled. “It was kind of buried.”
Kirwin heard much about the famine when he was child.
“My grandfather, who raised me, his father escaped the famine in County Carlow by working as a stonemason at one of the great houses,” Kirwin said. “The way my grandfather talked about the famine, it was horrific. Grass stains on people’s mouths. His father had seen that.”
The stories left their mark on Kirwin. Black 47 has always been political.
“The songs weren’t about the usual moon in June, but they also dealt with romance and topical things, what was happening at the time,” Kirwin said. For instance, a trip to New Orleans inspired the song “Voodoo City.”
“It’s a tale of romance and revenge and New Orleans, which was always one of our favorite cities,” Kirwin said. “When I told the band we’re going there again, they were like, ‘Yahoo!’ And we’re very aware of the Irish role in New Orleans.”
Black 47’s International Irish Famine Commemoration show will be its final New Orleans appearance. The Gallier Hall engagement is the band’s fifth to last performance, period.
Last November, Black 47 decided to grant itself one more year before breaking up at the end of its 25th anniversary year.
“Yeah, 25 years is a good length of time,” Kirwin said. “You start repeating yourself. The longer you go in a band, the easier it is to fall into what works, rather than challenging yourself. One of the things we do, we’ve never done the same set twice in 2,500 gigs.”
Kirwin and the lads’ farewell travels began in February.
“We wanted to get as many gigs as we could and see the people,” Kirwin explained. “A lot of people have been loyal to Black 47. Fans and promoters and club owners and pub owners. So this has been a thank you to them.”
Reaction to the last hurrah of Black 47 has been emotional.
“A woman last night, she was just brokenhearted,” Kirwin said. “I knew why, because I know some of the things she’s been through. The music had gotten her through it. What happens is, a particular song or album will happen at a certain point in people’s lives. That music has such a place in their lives.”
The black in Black 47, in addition to its famine reference, also relates to the band’s melding of traditional Celtic music and funk and hip-hop beats. European music, of course, traditionally adheres rigidly to the beat, even in such recent examples as Ireland’s own, internationally famous U2.
“Larry Mullin, he’s so on the beat,” Kirwin said of U2’s drummer. “It’s like, ‘Dude, give it a break. Loosen up a little there, man.’ It’s a march almost, rather than the lazier feel of American music, which really appeals to me.”