By Colleen Taylor
Last week, a New York band treated one of Boston’s best Irish music venues to an array of Big Apple songs. The Narrowbacks, a burgeoning Irish-American band with proud New York roots, rocked the Burren in Sommerville, Mass. They were so well liked there that—despite longstanding intercity rivalries—the Burren invited them back. I chatted with the band before the show about how they transformed from two friends joking about playing music into a full-scale band with an original album, an EP, and another record on the way.
The Narrowbacks don’t take themselves very seriously, which is fitting, because their music is meant to inspire mirth. Laughing, bandleaders Seamus Keane and Barry Walsh told me they decided to form the group on a whim after a few too many pints. They never expected it to take off, let alone to extend beyond local venues in New York. After practicing for a couple years, adding a few more instruments to their repertoire, and including other band members, Patrick Keane, Fionn McElligott, Chris Moran and Anthony Chen, the Narrowbacks were suddenly, to use Barry Walsh’s words, “a proper band.” All of a sudden, to their ostensible astonishment, the joke had become reality.
Roots are important for the Narrowbacks. Keane and Walsh’s parents hail from Ireland, and the Irish character of New York neighborhoods like Woodlawn, Rockaway, Pearl River and Bambridge inflects their original songs, such as “Paddy’s Field” (off their album, “Fire It Up”). I see them as the next generation of a group like Black 47: a punk/rock infusion of place and tradition. The lads seemed to be chuffed by the comparison: Black 47, Flogging Molly, the Dropkick Murphys, the Pogues and the Dubliners are their idols and musical inspirations. They also have their own diverse musical interests outside the Irish-American genres. Drummer Chris Moran, for instance, works his blues and Southern rock interests into the band’s sound from time to time as well.
The Narrowbacks aren’t exactly breaking new musical ground, but they know how to fill a venue with energy. Their music is literally and figuratively electric, and it sounds best live. That said, their EP “After Hours” is a noticeable progression from their debut “Fire It Up.” With the help of traditional musicians, the Narrowbacks recorded this short EP as a teaser for their album, which will be out in April: “We wanted a more full, better sounding CD,” Keane said. The title deliberately evokes the cultural feel of the album—those late-night hours at the pub when everyone starts singing their favorite traditional tunes. Across all the albums, the band rocks trad tunes like “Whiskey in the Jar” and “the Fields of Athenry,” making them relevant and youthful again for the next generation of Irish and Irish-Americans. History and tradition seem fun and edgy when the Narrowbacks take the stage.
Things are starting to come full circle for this group of New Yorkers who first gathered under the ruse of a joke. They will soon be opening for a band they used to admire from afar: the one and only Dropkick Murphys. Once again, Keane and the lads seem unaccustomed to their success: “I was shocked when [Ken Casey] asked us to open, but of course I said yes!” The Narrowbacks will open for Dropkick on March 16 at the House of Blues in Boston. The sounds the two Irish-American cities will fuse once again—you might even want to mark your calendars now.
What’s next for the Narrowbacks? My wager is a lot more. Their aspirations know now limits: Keane says the ultimate goal is simply “to get their music heard by as many people out there.” The Narrowbacks want to carry their sounds and beats all over the States, even across the Atlantic. They strike me as a group that has barely begun. I know many fans are still missing Black 47 since their retirement. Well, the Narrowbacks fill the need for an Irish-America that knows how to rock.
Find out more at: the narrowbacks.com.
Colleen Taylor writes the Music Notes column each week in the Irish Echo.