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Bittersweet Sixteen

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Album Review

Black 47 and Gadfly Records were faced with a challenge in compiling a retrospective on the band, since, over the first 16 years of their existence, in addition to their self-released and Gadfly discs, Black 47 made recordings for three other companies — two of them subsidiaries of major labels — from which the music could not be licensed. The solution, of course, was to use other versions of some of the songs in question, and "to the rescue," as annotator and bandleader Larry Kirwan puts it, came disc jockey Vin Scelsa, "who provided a long lost live studio recording considered by many stronger than our actual CD performances." That made available six songs originally heard on out of print major-label albums like Home of the Brave and Green Suede Shoes. Then there are four tracks drawn from the Gadfly records; an early version of the song "Home of the Brave"; a previously unreleased early mix of "Funky Ceili"; and four previously unrecorded songs — a cover of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," the Kirwan original "Southside Chicago Waltz," a cover of Brendan Behan's "Patriot Game," and an a cappella rendition of union organizer Joe Hill's poem "Joe Hill's Last Will." Kirwan provides his own assessment of the result: "The selection is in no sense definitive," he admits, "but provides a serviceable introduction for a novice, with enough unreleased tunes, hard to find covers, and current live segues to catch the attention of a veteran." This is fair enough, but it's also worth noting that the contractual restrictions have skewed things somewhat. Since the band has never had any hits, any choice of its best or even most representative material is necessarily subjective, but most "veterans" would find it odd for a Black 47 compilation not to include "Rockin' the Bronx" and "James Connolly" (which appear on the self-released Black 47 debut album, reissued by Gadfly), "Maria's Wedding" and "Fire of Freedom" (from the Fire of Freedom album released by SBK/EMI, and apparently not re-recorded by Scelsa, though there is a performance of "Fire of Freedom" on Gadfly's On Fire live album), and "I Got Laid on James Joyce's Grave" (from the Shanachie Records album Trouble in the Land, which goes completely ignored). So, Bittersweet Sixteen must be thought of more as a rarities collection than a best-of, which actually may mean it will please veterans while, as Kirwan notes, being only serviceable for novices, for whom Live in New York City or On Fire might make a better introduction. (Although it consists of archival material, Bittersweet Sixteen is not classified as a compilation by All Music Guide because most of the recordings have not been released previously.)


Formed: 1990

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Black 47 (a name deriving from the year 1847, the blackest year of the Irish potato famine) is a New York-based band made up of Irish expatriates and led by songwriter/playwright Larry Kirwan. In addition to Kirwan (vocals, guitar), the band consists of Chris Byrne (uilleann pipes, tin whistle, vocals), Fred Parcells (trombone, tin whistle, vocals), Jeff Blythe (saxophone), Thomas Hamlin (percussion), and David Conrad (bass). Black 47 plays a mixture of traditional Celtic folk music, rock & roll,...
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Bittersweet Sixteen, Black 47
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