How many times has this unfortunate dilemma come about in your lifetime? It’s Wednesday night, and you and your friends want to hear some live music. Problem is, Albert is in the mood for Spanish music, Nan could go for something with an Italian flair to it, Trudy is all about finding a place to hear some traditional maritime and Civil War tunes and you just want to hear a few rollicking Irish jigs.
OK, fine. So this problem may never have arisen for most, if not all of you. However, it’s comforting to know that, if it did, the Black Irish Band would be there to satisfy the masses.
The band’s past is sown with a sort of mystical Celtic energy. Their album comes with this tag: “In the year of 1989 on a late summer afternoon, five friends got together to form a band. They wanted to play Irish and Spanish music. One hour into that first practice, a strong earthquake hit the coast of California! From that dark day in California history the Black Irish was formed; the rest is history!” Coincidence or psychic phenomenon? You decide.
History is a good term to come upon when talking about the Black Irish, for there is the feeling that they are, in some sense, musical historians—keeping the Celtic sound alive in the United States, but also representing that Irish style of banter that is most pronounced after a few pints of Guinness. But most of us aren’t drawn to live music to get a sense of history, although that can be a nice perk.
We’re drawn to hearing talented players, and the Black Irish Band is chock-full of these. Sprinkling the sounds of banjo, guitar, melodeon, acoustic bass, mandolin and some of the smoothest Celtic harmonies you’ll hear this side of the Emerald Isle, the Black Irish Band will likely make you want to swing your mug o’ grog back and forth and sing along. There’s something about this kind of music that can make you feel like it’s no big deal when the town drunk vomits on your shoes, then quickly recuperates to order another round, all the while yelling, “Play ‘Danny Boy.’” And the thing about the Black Irish is, they would likely play “Danny Boy,” and everything would be as it should.
The Black Irish Band focuses much of its energy on its Irish material (which consists, by the way, entirely of traditional Irish anthems—no originals here). At the risk of sounding like one of those cheesy John McDermott TV commercials, “You’ll hear favorites like, ‘Finnegan’s Wake,’ ‘Black and Tans,’ ‘Whisky in the Jar’ and many more.” However, just at the moment when it occurs to you that you can’t deal with another Irish chantey about drinking or fighting or lost love, the Black Irish will switch it up on you with a traditional Italian song about drinking or fighting or lost love. On their album, The Day the Earth Shook, the Black Irish dish out an especially heartfelt rendition of “Peggy O,” a song which gained some popularity among American listeners when both the Grateful Dead and Paul Simon covered it. Having mentioned the Grateful Dead, now might be the time to issue a quick word of warning about the Black Irish Band: They are not a jam band.
With the recent abundance of “bluegrassy/jazzy/Celtic/funk/jam/whatever else” bands that have been flowering, a concertgoer can almost expect some sort of jam philosophy to rule any group you can’t hear on mainstream radio. This isn’t the case with the Black Irish Band. They play strictly traditional songs, and though there will be many opportunities to dance, as well as, hopefully, some dueling banjo/mandolin action, you’re unlikely to hear a trippy, 15 minute version of “Paddy Worked on the Railway.”
What you will hear, however, should you make the pilgrimage to Sean Kelly’s, is the sound of joy that is inherent in good Celtic music. Even the ballads of struggle offer a deep, resonant sense of what it means to be human, which is why so many of the songs are about working, drinking, fighting and loving—because other than these things, what else do we do, really?