How does someone like/know/follow a band for 20 years and NOT totally get it — until last night, their sixth-to-last show, my penultimate Black 47 show? Didn’t know how necessary it was to see them last night at Paddy Reilly’s.
I’ve seen them at least a couple dozen times at nightclubs, at fairs, at Irish clubs and, once, an amphitheater in Hollywood. But I never saw them in their true element until last night. Never saw them at Reilly’s. Yeah, I know, there was that bar up on Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx where they cut their baby teeth, and the original Reilly’s, when they first achieved fame, was a block south on Second Avenue, but nonetheless, it was Black 47. It was Reilly’s, their last hurrah there. And a week from tomorrow night, on the 15th, when they play their final note at B.B. King’s, everything truly, sadly, will be one huge was.
Got there from Connecticut at quarter to 6 for an 8 o’clock show because I thought the small bar would sell out and I should get there early. (And thanks to Diana the bartender for saving me a ticket.) Set up a spot at the end of the bar a dozen feet from the stage and treated myself to takeout from the Italian place next door as Larry tested out his guitar (most memorable riff: “What’d I Say”) and Geoff adjusted his mouthpiece and played some nimble riffs on the sax, and the band ran through “Fire of Freedom” with Larry’s younger son, Rory (a lanky blonde, like his mom, with matinee looks), doing the hip-hop fill on the bridge.
Magic just kinda happens sometimes — just add water, or “holy water” from behind the bar, or Guinness, or family and friends and hardcore fans; last night, it was all of the above. (I saw Larry’s wife, June, for the first time since I had dinner with the family after one of his book readings at R.J. Julia in Madison in the early 2000s; also met Geoff’s wife, Clare, and Hammy’s wife, Annette. And a nice surprise — my New Haven-area friends John and Kelly Carr, whose wedding I DJed in the early ’90s, came in and joined me up front.) The room — a narrow bar, about one-and-a-third times the size of my New Haven musical watering hole, Cafe Nine, with a postage-stamp corner stage three-quarters the size — was still fairly empty come 7, but slowly, the numbers came and the noise level began to rise.
And by the time the band made its way to the close quarters in the corner around 8:30, the
room was sufficiently loud — and stuffed. And joyous. At least 200 people, plus a video cameraman and a couple of still photographers who’ve been working for years on a documentary on the band. And, since it’s my nature to be that person everyone cuts in front of or around at a show, I was right along the expressway to the bar, so I did my share of passing money and pints back and forth (and one guy bought me a pint for my troubles). In Connecticut, there would be tension and hostility in such a scenario. This night? Not at all. We were all friends.
My mind is a blur from the adrenaline and the Guinness (though I was sober by the time I left), but they started with “Green Suede Shoes,” their ode to Michael Collins, “The Big Fellah,” and straight into “The Reels,” the instrumental fury — accompanied by Irish dancers from the audience — that they usually save ’til later. No one stepped up from the crowd to dance — but then, this young man, another lanky glass of water in his mid-20s, climbed onto the bar right next to my elbow, his serious dancing shoes on, and tapped and clogged and stomped himself into a quiet rage, part Michael Flatley, part Michael Jackson. I had never seen a male dancer during “The Reels,” and never had anyone danced so spectacularly through it. His name is Jake, and it turns out he has danced for several of Larry’s theatrical productions. It was the first of his several climbs atop the bar.
Over the course of two hours, they did at least something from every album except “Bankers and Gangsters.” There was the medley of “Three Little Birds”/”Desperate.” “Livin’ in America.” “Fanatic Heart.” “Rockin’ the Bronx.” “Fire of Freedom,” with Rory. Chris Byrne, the band’s co-founder and original piper, joined them for “Walk All the Days.” “Downtown Baghdad Blues,” from “Iraq.” “Culchie Prince” and “Salsa O’Keefe,” from “Last Call.” “Mychal” turned my joy to almost tears, as Larry talked about the fans who couldn’t be there — the firefighters who never came home from 9/11, his longtime pal and Black 47 sound engineer Johnny Byrne, and Father Mychal Judge. Not sure what brought the waterworks up so close to the surface, as I never knew these people, but Larry paid them a wonderful tribute and let them know they were still there.
And the end couldn’t have been more rousing: “40 Shades of Blue.” (And yes, there were still a few smokers who threw cigarettes at Larry.) “Funky Ceili.” And, after an exhortation from Steve, the bar manager, an encore with “G-L-O-R-I-I-I-I-A!” at double-time, followed by “I Fought the Law.” (And a trip in the memory banks to March 5, 2004, at Toad’s Place in New Haven, where I used to introduce the band on stage. My final show before my eight-year exile in California. And since he knew “Who Killed Bobby Fuller?” was my favorite Black 47 song, Larry brought me up to sing “I Fought the Law” with them as a lovely parting gift.)
And then, at 10:40 p.m., all over, save for the band talking and taking photos with everyone in the back room. Friends and family. It was like having a jam session in the basement, except that, in this case, it was one of the most revolutionary bands of the last generation, a group of guys who changed the image — and the course — of Irish music and storytelling and political discourse. (And Larry reaps the intangible reward of playing many of the younger bands that have followed Black 47 on his Sirius XM show, “Celtic Crush.”) And few people wanted to leave. I only left because I needed to catch a train home.
It was the band in its true element — in extremely close quarters, not spread-out over some huge stage. The energy was compacted, concentrated, not disspiated; they thrived off the energy of the people up-close, crowded-in around them, and returned that energy in kind.
During the show, I told J.C. what I said up top: “I can’t believe I’ve followed this band for 20 years and didn’t fucking get it ’til now!” And his answer was spot-on: “It’s like seeing The Ramones at CB’s.”
And not because Larry was wearing a CBGB t-shirt, either. But the allegory wasn’t lost on me, and probably a lot of other people in the room. I’m not sure how the grand finale at B.B.’s can match last night (and I’ll find out for myself), because I can imagine there will be all sorts of emotions flying and whirling about the room. But last night at Paddy Reilly’s, save for “Mychal,” was pure, unfiltered joy. Home, at last, for the last time. And my first time. And I didn’t realize until the first notes were played just how necessary it was.
Coda: The final show, B.B. King’s, Manhattan, 11/15/14
So this is how a finale plays out.
Y’know, all the years I’ve been going to see bands, and all the years I wrote about music, I had never seen one that was playing its announced final gig. The closest I came was on my trip to London in November 1985, seeing the next-to-last show by English psychedelics The Playn Jayn at the Marquee. And with them, I had never heard them before, had no emotional investment beyond buying their Five Good Evils LP.
Black 47, of course, was another story. But this finale at B.B. King’s was such a long time coming, and they crammed so much into their final week, and this would be the third show I caught in the final 10 days (my old, occasional terrestrial radio station, WPKN in Bridgeport, aired the show at the Georgetown Saloon in Redding, Ct., last Tuesday night on its website; I listened at work), that it almost seemed anticlimactic.
With the weather forecast to be January cold, and the possibility of having to stand for two or three hours, I took my time getting down to NYC, arriving late Saturday afternoon — the time I would normally be settling at my desk at work. Meandered my way over to Times Square around 6; my friend Katherine, a fellow onetime music writer, a girl of the South who now lives in the City, was to meet me at 7.
She was the one who introduced me to the joys of Paddy Reilly’s a year ago September, my final Friday before my layoff from my part-time job at MSN took effect. She took me for a burger at a place in Rockefeller Center, walked around a little while, then hailed us a cab to go have a couple of pops at Reilly’s, since I had never set foot in the place, which she found astounding, and Saturday night, I was able to return the kindness.
And as I got off the train at 42nd and Eighth, I saw a line at least a hundred feel long already to get into the club, with the doors not scheduled to open ’til 7. (And the sides of the marquee simply read BLACK 47; nothing about a farewell show.)
I settled into the back of the line, along with three women who came down from Rhode Island; Maureen told me she was from Narragansett, and I told her how the town beach there was one of my favorite spots in the world, and how I long dreamed of becoming a bestselling writer so I could buy that beautiful 1930s house along the beach, the one with the turrets and sweeping gables, the one that screamed, “Edward Hopper, paint me!” (She told me an investment banker from New York bought it, and hired Sting to play at his 40th birthday party. Fucking investment bankers have to ruin everything, don’t they? Now it’s really out of my price range …)
Went up to check on will-call status with the guy at the door, where I ran into Fred Parcells, who introduced me to his his family as they headed in. I returned to the line, where a young woman behind me said, “You’re Fran, aren’t you?” Giselle was a longtime fan who saw the original version of this blog post last week; this Black 47 fandom thing was like one huge family of which I truly wasn’t aware until now. She was there with three friends, one of whom flew in from Sacramento for the show. I told her I had lived in Fresno for eight years; she told me, “I’m sorry to hear that.” (I think you have to have lived in California to truly understand that.)
Around 6:30, the line started to move already; the doors weren’t supposed to open ’til 7. I texted Katherine and kept her abreast of what was going on. Ten minutes later, I was in, but — big surprise — the seats were already gone. Standing room. Shit. I sat and waited for Katherine to get to the club so I could come upstairs and get her. That’s where Clare Blythe found me for a couple of minutes before she had to head off with her stepdaughter.
Sure enough, Katherine arrived around 5 after 7. We were both hungry, and since we weren’t gonna be sitting at B.B.’s, we decided to get some McShit at the place across the street, just to get something in our systems and to sit for a few minutes and to get caught up a little bit before the music started, since we hadn’t seen each other since June.
We settled in on the second level, close enough to see well, far enough away from the bar. (And on carpet — much easier on the feet and knees. And besides, I didn’t need to be up front; I had my time up-close at Reilly’s.) And we got back to B.B.’s to see a pipe band (all the way from County Mercer, New Jersey) occupying the dance floor and stirring up the crowd. And at 8 on the dot, the band walked out to a raucous reception — all huge smiles, all of them.
It seems as if there was a great sense of relief on Larry’s face greeted us all and the band kicked into “Green Suede Shoes.” They were loose. Maybe there was an element of let’s-get-this-over-with, except that everyone seems to be having a great time up there. And they played two-and-a-half hours.
“The Big Fellah” stood tall one last time. Mary Courtney came out to reprise her part on “Livin’ in America” and Jake came out from backstage to do “The Reels.” (Boo of the night: Two girls who also got up on stage to perform this time-honored Black 47 custom were chased off the stage by a bouncer who had no fucking clue.) The medley of “Three Little Birds”/”Desperate” gave way to Larry memorializing the story of Danny McCorley, the gay construction worker from Bandon Town, for the final time.
“Culchie Prince” returned, followed by “Fanatic Heart.” And around that point, our pal Christine Ohlman, who sang on the 2004 New York Town re-recording of “Blood Wedding,” came out; she rushed over from Rockefeller Center to take the stage, in a black lace dress and sheer black veil over her blonde beehive, belted out the tune in the mighty, husky way only she can, then rushed back for her usual Saturday gig, singing with the Saturday Night Live band. (My hometown pal Lisa Lowry — her mom is best of friends with mine — was up near the front, got the band’s playlist and posted it this morning, and “Downtown Baghdad Blues” was scratched, perhaps for Christine?)
Christine’s visit was followed by another nice touch on “Rockin’ the Bronx” — Larry left the stage, and and Freddie and Geoff walked over to stage left to jam with Joseph and Bearclaw, the four of them huddled on the spacious stage in a space small enough to be the corner stage at Reilly’s. That intimacy one final time. Then a rollicking romp through “Five Points,” and Rary rapped at the end of “Fire of Freedom.”
(One coulda-been: Clare told me earlier that the band reached back to the first album the night before in Poughkeepsie for “Banks of the Hudson.” It didn’t make it to the Saturday playlist, though.)
I didn’t feel the rush of the joy or the sadness I experienced at Paddy’s, even when Larry conjured up the ghosts on “Mychal”; there might have been a few tears among some in the crowd, but certainly not on stage. I didn’t know how this night would play out emotionally, and I wasn’t expecting the intensity of that Reilly’s gig. It was, though, a festive, celebratory atmosphere through and through.
And they heated up the rails on the way to the end: Chris came out, a huge, gap-toothed smile at what he and Larry had wrought, doing “Walk All the Days.” Fists raised by the hundreds for “James Connolly (with Jake on the bodhran), the last showerings of cigarettes during “40 Shades of Blue” (I heard someone say out on line that she had bought a pack of smokes to throw during the song), a rousing “Funky Ceili” to end the set, “Maria’s Wedding” in the encore (no way they could not play that), and the whole crew on stage for “Gloria”/”I Fought the Law.” Larry thanked the crowd for 25 years, and most of the band walked off — except for the two junior members, Bearclaw and Joseph, who serenaded the crowd by singing along to Van Halen’s version of “Happy Trails.” Then, at last, it was over.
They all have musical endeavors on which to fall back. Geoff just released his own CD. And come tomorrow morning (Tuesday the 18th), Larry’s on a plane to Ireland to lead a tour group, after which he’s lining up a solo tour.
And one thing they don’t have is regrets. Black 47 had said all it had to say in the context of a group, and the guys left nothing on the proverbial table or the literal stage floor when they walked off at B.B.’s. And that’s the best reason I can think of as to why I don’t feel sad. If anything, I feel overjoyed and privileged to have seen them at their final show at Paddy Reilly’s and at their absolute last reel at B.B.’s. And saw them go out like Jeter. Or Ted Williams.
Slainte, guys. And thanks for all the fun.