No Paint-by-Numbers


New York rock band Black 47 is coming to Orange County on Monday, but the main point isn’t to sell records.

“We’re coming in there to do Bob Dornan’s wake--that’s what the theme of this gig is gonna be,” said group leader Lance Kirwan. “I only hope he’ll show up.”

Not likely. The notoriously conservative Republican who recently lost his seat in Congress would have little in common with this group’s scathing leftist politics.

Its stance and powerhouse music have made it a cause celebre around New York since it emerged in 1989, but that popularity hasn’t always translated to other areas.


When Black 47 last played the Coach House two years ago, just a few dozen hard-core fans turned out. What they encountered was a performance full of passion and grit and without any rock-star posturing.

Black 47 takes its name from the worst year in the previous century’s Irish potato famine. The group is fronted by Kirwan, a diminutive, histrionic and ferociously transplanted Irishman who writes the bulk of its material, sings most of the songs and acts as its main crowd pumper-upper.

He thrusts his bantam fist skyward in “power to the people” salutes, jumps about the stage with manic energy, turns six shades of purplish-pink and generally becomes lost in the rapture of the moment’s music.

On the band’s fourth album, the recently released “Green Suede Shoes,” former playwright Kirwan brings a theatrical literacy and creativity to the table, whether singing biographical odes (“Bobby Sands MP,” a first-person recitation of the Irish hunger striker’s legacy; “Rory,” a tender homage to Irish blues rocker Rory Gallagher, who died last year), autobiographical slices of life (the title cut serves as an anthem of sorts for the band) or compelling bits of political storytelling (“Vinegar Hill,” “Czechoslovakia”).

Kirwan’s tales deal with the larger than life, the idealistic rather than the hedonistic--which puts him intrinsically at odds with much of the contemporary rock scene.

“The one attribute I really can’t handle is self-pity--whether it’s in a song or in life,” Kirwan mused. “None of the characters in my songs have the least bit of self-pity. They may be down, but they’re ready to get up the next morning and go on with it.”

Musically, Black 47 offers a jolting juxtaposition of sounds. The lineup features Kirwan on guitar and lead vocals, former Dexy’s Midnight Runners saxophonist Geoffrey Blythe on saxophones, Irish pipes/tin whistle player and singer Chris Byrne, bassist-keyboardist Andrew Goodsight, drummer Thomas Hamblin and trombonist/tin whistle player Fred Parcells.


Kirwan’s loud, punky, heavily distorted guitar and passionate, brogue-accented vocals meet the more traditionally arranged horns and whistles in what can sound like a battle royal between the Clash, the Chieftains and early Bruce Springsteen. Musically and thematically, Kirwan feels duty-bound to create something unique.

“I like to introduce different elements into rock music,” he said. “Rock music is open to a lot of different interpretations. Perhaps the years of self-training as a playwright bring that out in me. Why not introduce other elements; why not bring Shakespeare into rock music; why not do anything you want with it? Why be like something you hear on the radio? . . . Who would even want to listen to the radio nowadays anyway?”

Kirwan, 40, was born in Wexford, Ireland, and moved to New York City when he was 20 and where he’s lived ever since.

“I like it here,” he said. “I came from a small town, and I like the whole freedom of it here. You could come to New York and, if not reinvent yourself, basically start all over again.”

Settling in the Hell’s Kitchen district (with its considerable Irish population), Kirwan vacillated between writing plays and playing music. He was a member of Major Thinkers, which recorded briefly for Epic Records in the mid-'80s.

The bitterness he felt when the band was dropped made Kirwan swear off the music business--until he was at Paddy Reilly’s pub one night in 1989 and met Chris Byrne, an American musician performing with a traditional Irish folk band called Beyond the Pale.

Kirwan and Byrne joined forces, and Black 47 debuted at Reilly’s in October ’89. The group became an instant word-of-mouth sensation in NYC, drawing huge crowds that often have such celebrities as the Clash’s Joe Strummer, Neil Young, Liam Neeson, Brooke Shields and Matt Dillon among the varied and well-oiled locals.

In fact, the curious allure of the Reilly’s gigs has become a large part of the group’s mystique. When not on the road, Black 47 still plays the local watering hole every Saturday night.

“At Reilly’s, you could be standing next to Joe Strummer one minute and a fireman or a student the next,” Kirwan said. “It has a great mix of people who go there because they like the music.”

That’s the band’s outlook as well.

“We live for the moment totally,” Kirwan said. “This is what we do for a living, and we’d like to continue making a living at it. It’s a very working-class ethic--you pay, we play. We don’t have any goals beyond making good music, and when the inspiration to make good music ends, we’ll call it a day.”

* Black 47 and Hinged play Monday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $15.50-$17.50. (714) 496-8930.