Paddies get on down: Larry Kirwan rallies the masses.
Back to the Irish
By Bill Forman
Back before terrorism became our national obsession, my dad sent me an IRA (Irish Republican Army) T-shirt as a birthday present. Frankly, I'd never pictured my dad as the revolutionary sort, though I guess most Irish-American Catholics want to see the Brits, as Paul McCartney once sang, give Ireland back to the Irish. Anyway, so later that day, I was wearing my new IRA shirt when, as fate would have it, the police pulled me over and advised me through a bullhorn to step away from the car. Great.
Luckily for me, the officers either didn't notice, understand or care about my terrorist organization t-shirt. Instead, it was my tinted windows which, according to them, increased my likelihood of being a gang member. One fix-it ticket later, I was back on the road, ready to strike terror in the hearts of WASPs the world over.
Of course, those were more innocent times. So it was no surprise that neither myself nor anyone else in the audience were wearing IRA T-shirts as St. Patrick's Day came to Northern California six months late last week, thanks to rare appearances by Hothouse Flowers Monday at Don Quixote's and Black 47 Friday at San Francisco's Red Devil Lounge. Still, there was plenty of revolutionary spirit in the air at the latter, as New York City's favorite Irish expats finished a song about Irish nationalist James Connolly with a military drumbeat, frontman Larry Kirwan standing with eyes closed, fist in the air.
A talented playwright and novelist, Kirwan is among the most literate and compelling songwriters working in music today; it's a shame that they so rarely make it out to the West Coast. "Somebody told me we haven't played here in 10 years," Kirwan told an impossibly packed crowd who knew the words to every song, "but I could swear we were here in 2002, unless it was a dream."
For my own part, I've seen Black 47 on three trips home to New York, and been amazed at how they become more powerful with each passing year. They're essentially New York City's house band, even more so since Sept. 11 took its toll on the city, its cops and its firemen--many of whom are also Irish-American. Being at one of their shows is like hanging out with several hundred of your instant new best friends. When it comes to using music as a means to create community while providing inspiration and emotional sustenance, Black 47 get the job done.
Which brings us to Hothouse Flowers' mainmen Liam Ó Maonlaí and Fiachna ó Braonáin, who went to a Gaelic-speaking grade school together and strutted their cultural heritage during Monday's encore with two songs in their native dialect. The former mainstream hitmakers have outlived their mainstream success gracefully, giving the intimate venue two full sets filled with as much energy and intensity as they had when playing huge concert halls in their heyday.
And while it's not quite equal time, notice should also be made of psych folk goddess Vashti Bunyan's incandescent performance at the Attic last Wednesday. Accompanied by five musicians half her age, the English folksinger (and descendent of Pilgrim's Progress author John Bunyan) offered up chamber-pop renditions of songs from her two albums, which fit together seamlessly even though they were written and recorded three decades apart.
Guess those Brits aren't so bad, after all.
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