Friendship helps the Narrowbacks’ creative fire.
By Colleen Taylor
In the 19th century, narrowbacks referred to women of Irish descent raised in America, distinguished from their ancestors in places such as Connemara by their narrow shoulders. In 18th and 19th -century western Ireland, women naturally built up broad shoulders over time by carrying baskets of wet seaweed for miles, from the coastline back to their family’s small square of land, as manure for potato crop. Two hundred years later, however, the Narrowbacks names six guys from the Bronx. The term has gone from a derogatory slight first used against Irish-American women to a source of pride for contemporary Irish-American musical culture. Today’s Narrowbacks, our Narrowbacks, are fresh off their sophomore album entitled “Arrogance and Ignorance” (a phrase borrowed from Malachy McCourt’s autobiography). Like the bandname “Narrowbacks” itself, “Arrogance and Ignorance” reflects the music’s multi-faceted history.
It’s somewhat ironic that the original narrowbacks were typically women, because the theme of “Arrogance and Ignorance” is Irish-American brotherly – or some might say “laddish” – camaraderie. The songs are, in founding member Seamus Keane’s words, “stories about guys between the ages of 23-30 living in New York, love, loss, war and immigration.” The inspiration behind Keane’s songwriting was both his own personal life—“loss, love”—and the characters he encounters around New York’s Irish neighborhoods, Woodlawn, Pearl River, Bambridge and so on. No doubt these are themes many young men frequenting the pubs of Woodlawn would revel in. In fact, when I first met the Narrowbacks, they described their band history in somewhat of a “lads’ night out” kind of way. Keane and fellow band member Barry Walsh recounted that they decided to form the Narrowbacks after one too many pints, laughing all the way as they related the story. Friendship helps solidify the creative fire for the Narrowbacks, but the more historical inspiration is, of course, their cultural identity and shared history.
Keane identifies “Arrogance and Ignorance” as Irish instruments, American stories. This can be heard on of my favorite tracks on the album, “Out on the Avenue,” energetic rock/trad at its most boisterous. However, I think the obverse of Keane’s definition applies too: American music, Irish stories. Barry Walsh points out that many of musical influences for “Arrogance and Ignorance” came from his ‘90s rock interests, Gin Blossoms and Third Eye Blind, as much as they did from traditional music or bands like Black 47. Meanwhile, the lyrics are entirely your “local Irish.” Listening is like taking a walk through Woodlawn or any of the Irish neighborhoods, as the cheekily-titled “Bastards of the Boroughs” implies. The album maps out the experience of Irish-American New Yorkers, Irish expats, and all the young Irish J1 students that make their way to New York every year.
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“Arrogance and Ignorance” is Irish America at its freshest, and most youthful—the very latest installment of Irish-American cultural crossover. Just take a listen to “Shannon,” one of the band’s best crowd pleasers, and you’ll hear what I mean. You can just envision a crowd of young “new Irish” rocking out in a pub in Woodlawn to a track like that. What’s perhaps most interesting about “Arrogance and Ignorance,” then, is that it’s a cultural document as well as an album. It records a particular New York experience that thousands of young 20-somethings both in Ireland and America live each year.
The Narrowbacks have hit a turning point in their career. The band that began as a joke has made the joke a profession. Now, they not only have an original album, they’ve also opened for both Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys, the biggest names in Irish-American rock. Needless to say, there’s no stopping Keane and the lads here. The Narrowbacks not only have a new local home base in Woodlawn, Keane’s newly opened Pub on Katonah Ave., they are also planning upcoming shows in Boston and Chicago as well. Although the album is very New York, there’s something of the spirit of Irish America that can apply to any American city with a long Irish history.
No matter your age, you can have a fun night out with the Narrowbacks. Check out “Arrogant and Ignorance,” drop by Keane’s, or just give them a like at narrowbacks.com.
Colleen Taylor writes the Music Notes column every week in the Irish Echo.