It’s mid-day, and Larry Kirwan is sifting through artist sketches, trying to figure out what should be the cover of Black 47’s third SBK/EMI album.
“I’m sitting here drinking tea, but I may move to whiskey soon … maybe that will illuminate it better,” the singer-songwriter said with a hearty laugh from his New York City apartment recently.
Titled “Green Suede Shoes,” the followup LP to 1994’s “Home of the Brave” is only a month or so away from release.
No matter. Kirwan isn’t worried. He thinks “Green Suede Shoes” will be widely embraced.
“It’s much like other Black 47 songs, only they update what the band’s been up to in the past year or two,” he said.
Here’s just some of what the band has experienced during that time:
“We played this big festival in Hoboken (N.J.), and the chief of police closed it down. He expected about 5,000 people, and he said 30,000 showed up, so they closed all the bars in the town and ran everybody out of it,” Kirwan said, describing the subject of the title track. “The show got heavy radio advertising, and we didn’t know anything about it. We thought we were just going to a festival.”
Then in February 1995, the band got roughed up in a van crash outside Providence, R.I.
“The van turned over twice, and it was quite scary,” Kirwan said. “Luckily, we were only doing about 40 mph at the time, but there was ice and we went all over the place.
“We were all hurt, but not too badly. I thought my neck was broken, and it wasn’t, thank goodness.”
Black 47 also addresses the myth that if your songs are played on the radio surely you must be millionaires. “It’s like the old saying,” Kirwan said, “the longer I play, the deeper in debt I get.”
Kirwan, an Irish expatriate, and former New York City police officer Chris Byrne formed Black 47 in late 1989 and attracted a fervent following among the bars and clubs throughout New York. Crowds were drawn to their socio-political songs and distinctive mixture of Irish, hip-hop, funk and rock influences. Their ’92 debut album, “Fire of Freedom,” featured the leftfield MTV hit “Funky Ceili” and was co-produced by Kirwan and former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek.
Then came “Home of the Brave,” an ambitious look at what Kirwan calls “schemers, lovers and dreamers falling off the edge.” Co-produced by Kirwan and ex-Talking Head Jerry Harrison, the album explored the lives of civil rights activist Paul Robeson, murdered rock star Bobby Fuller (“I Fought the Law”) and Irish revolutionary Michael Collins, among others.
Through it all, Black 47 fans maintained their devotion, even though soldout shows haven’t translate into wide radio airplay.
“People know us nationally in a limited way, because if you’ve been on MTV and you’re on Letterman and Conan O’Brien and ‘Tonight Show,’ there’s a glimmer of recognition,” Kirwan said, “but we do have a real strong cult following all over the country.
“We can go to any state in the country and sell out a large club or whatever. People will travel, like for instance we played Chicago the other night and we weren’t playing Milwaukee so a couple hundred people drove down for the show. That’s a great feeling for us.”