Monday, March 12, 2018

Review of Black 47's "Bankers and Gangsters"

I posted this one earlier tonight as an early St. Patrick's Day present, on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: This album is the masterpiece of Black 47's later years.

Bankers and Gangsters (2010) is the masterpiece of Celtic Rock band Black 47's later years. Released just two years after the joyless protest album Iraq (2008), this one showed that the band still knew how have fun, and how to craft some great rock anthems as well. The LP features high-energy Celtic rhythms, intense ballads and everything in between, with songs that are alternately humorous, heartbreaking, lusty and political. There are thirteen tracks in all, and they're mostly all first-rate. The two highlights, however, are a pair of songs that feature the band at their most lighthearted, "Izzy's Irish Rose" and "Long Lost Tapes of Hendrix". 

"Izzy's Irish Rose" tells the story of a gentle Jewish tailor from the lower east side of Manhattan who finds true love in the person of a voluptuous Irish barmaid. His mother tries to match him up with a "Katz from Houston St./A great big strapping lump of a girl with two big awkward feet." Ms. Katz, however, is no match for Izzy's true love: "He was looking at Rosemary Eileen Statia Ann Magnoles/Forever after to be known as Izzy's Irish Rose." In the end, the star-crossed interfaith couple marry and have a brood of red-haired "Sons of Israel", each of whom, singer Larry Kirwan assures us, can "drink you out of house and home". The music throughout the song switches back and forth from that of a rollicking Irish romp to a special Black 47 version of the Israeli folk song "Hava Nagila".

The other comical classic song on the LP is based on a true story. Apparently at some point, Jimi Hendrix's bass player Noel Redding made off with some previously unreleased tapes of one of Hendrix's last live performances and deposited them in the Allied Irish Bank as collateral for a mortgage. In this song, Kirwan's protagonist learns about this, and plots to steal them from under the nose (and other body parts) of the hefty bank manager Molly Maguire. But the ghost of Hendrix intervenes, and our hero awakens after a night of drunken carnal love on the floor of the bank vault to find himself forever betrothed to the lusty Ms. Maguire. Why Jimi Hendrix's ghost appears playing the uilleann pipes I don't even want to think about, but the important thing is that in the end, yet another of Kirwan's shady-but-luckless characters has gotten his proper comeuppance.

While these two tracks are the standouts, there are plenty of other treats on this album as well. The slow, ominous "Red Hugh" is another of Kirwan's historical musical biographies. It's sung from the viewpoint of Hugh Roe O'Donnell, an Irish warlord who rebelled against English rule in 1593. "Rosemary (Nelson)", on the other hand, is a tribute to a more modern Irish human rights activist who was assassinated by a car bomb in Northern Ireland in 1999.

On a lighter note, "Celtic Rocker" is the Black 47 version of The Rolling Stones' classic "Ruby Tuesday". It's a tribute to an Irish American girl who is a groupie for all of the top Celtic Rock bands. Meanwhile, "That Summer Dress" is Kirwan's nod to a former lover with whom he shared a fiery summer romance: "That summer dress/And your spark of desire at my door/That summer dress/It spent most of August on my floor." Another entertaining number is "Wedding Reel", a duet that Kirwan shares with Kathleen Fee, the lead singer of the New York band Celtic Cross. It's an amusing back-and-forth exchange between a sharp-tongued couple who constantly threaten to dump one another, but in the end, you know they'll probably stay together. Kirwan's notes about the album describe this one as "a mixture of raucous Kinks and crazy Ceili jam."

There are some excellent quiet numbers here as well. "The Islands" is a beautiful tale of lost love, wherein Kirwan goes back to his hometown for the girl he left behind, only to find that her house is boarded up because she's found another man and moved to Dublin. And "One Starry Night" is the band's take on a traditional Irish folk song. It's another sad tale of a broken relationship. This one features some particularly poignant sax and uilleann pipes.

Black 47 did record one last LP of original music after this one, Last Call in 2014, before the band called it a day. But Bankers and Gangsters was their last truly great album. It contains all of the elements that earned and kept their small-but-passionate fan base together for 25 years. If you find you'd like to celebrate this St. Patrick's Day by listening to some exceptionally good Celtic Rock music, you couldn't do much better than this album.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars