The Narrowbacks’s 3rd album, “By Hook or By Crook,” showcases the band’s songwriting talent.
Music Notes / By Colleen Taylor
Legend says that when Oliver Cromwell descended upon Ireland in the 17th century, he vowed to take the nation “by hook or by crook”—by any means necessary. Whether the alleged utterance is myth or embellished history, there is some bona fide irony in the fact that a group of Irish Catholic guys from the Bronx have claimed the term “by hook or by crook” for their own ambitions. The Narrowbacks, based in Woodlawn, are a band on the up. The next Shilelagh Law or Black 47, these young men provide the soundtrack for a new generation of New York Irish Americans—and they’re doing it, quite literally, “By Hook or By Crook,” the title of their recently-released album.
I first met the Narrowbacks in 2015 in the basement of Boston’s well-known Irish music pub, the Burren. I instantly liked their friendly demeanor and their historically-aware, irreverent name. Originally a slight against Irish-American women lacking the broad shoulders to carry baskets of wet seaweed, “narrowback” gains new satiric self-awareness with this all-male American band playing Irish tunes. The Narrowbacks told me back at the Burren that their group began as a drunken joke—a joke that just happened to evolve into a real band. But despite their self-effacing humor, the Narrowbacks quickly legitimized themselves with two album releases, “Fire it Up” in 2013 and “Arrogance and Ignorance” in 2016, plus large-scale gigs opening for the likes of Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly.
Since that meeting in Boston, and over the past four years, the six (now seven) New Yorkers have surprised and impressed me with their steady improvement and creative output. “By Hook or By Crook,” released in October, however, is the true apotheosis of their progress and my corresponding affect. Songs on their previous albums might be classified as nostalgic covers of rebel folk songs, interspersed with original tracks about, as the band once put it, “guys between the ages of 23 and 30 living in New York.” Before this October, I saw the Narrowbacks as a bunch of nice guys playing some great renditions of Irish songs in honor of their heritage. With “By Hook or By Crook,” however, they have become musicians first, showcasing a distinct cultural and creative perspective and some excellent songwriting. They also happen to be (thankfully, still) really nice guys.
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I spoke with lead singer Seamus Keane about the band’s progress and their new album. New Yorkers might know Keane by his business on Katonah Avenue in Woodlawn. Keane’s Bar & Restaurant is known in the Irish music scene for giving air time to up-and-coming Irish and Irish-American musicians, regularly hosting gigs by young bands visiting from Ireland. For Seamus Keane, it’s about paying it forward. He explains that his own success as a musician with the Narrowbacks is owing to mentors like Joanie Madden, Sharon Shannon, and Derek Warfield. The support of the Woodlawn community is invaluable for this business owner: “Everyone knows it can be tough putting on live music every night of the weekend [so people] try their best to support me because of it.” In fact, Keane sees his restaurant as an expression of Woodlawn’s Irish music and dance family: “I would say the community here in Woodlawn fosters Keane’s Bar & Restaurant, not the other way around, and I’m grateful.”
But now it’s time for Keane and his bandmates to shine through their own music. Keane has noticed the Narrowbacks maturing in sound with “By Hook or by Crook,” but he laughingly jokes that the guys—Keane (vocals), his brother Patrick Keane (accordion), Barry Walsh (banjo, mandolin), Fionn McElligott (guitar), Chris Moran (drums), and Anthony Chen (bass)—are “still very much the same” when it comes to their humor and antics. One point of change, however, has been the addition of fiddler Reilley Vegh, giving the Narrowbacks a more holistic Irish sound that you can hear from the first moment on the album, in the opening title track. And what a difference Vegh makes: he has helped the Narrowbacks’ Irish sound take flight with impressive rapid-fire fiddling. At the same time, there is a heavy electric guitar influence with Fionn McElligott’s added input: his rock arrangements give the band’s style a notable edge.
I’d wager to say that with this latest album, the Narrowbacks are close to equaling, if not surpassing, the likes of Shilelagh Law with their local flavor of New York Irish rock. I was convinced with tracks like “Streets of Woodlawn” and “On the Radio.” The energy is absolutely infectious, and even if you don’t like heavy rock, the fiddle strings and chorus lyrics will pull you right in. Plus, what New Yorker or honorary New Yorker (or Connecticut imposter like myself) doesn’t love belting a refrain like “In the streets of Woodlawn” or “the boys are back in the Bronx tonight”?
“By Hook or By Crook” is a love letter to Woodlawn and Irish New York. It maps the streets of the boroughs, two centuries of Irish history that invisibly line the city streets, and the unique American melting pot crossover of Irish folk and hardcore rock. The album took this Dublin expat right back to Katonah Avenue, placed me squarely in the Bronx, the Woodlawn pubs, and New York music venues—which is evidence in and of itself of effective music. The Narrowbacks have impressed me to the point of being rather astonished: their arrangements are tight, their lyrics catchy, and their energy second to none.
In short, the Narrowback’s “By Hook or By Crook” is the sound of Irish-America. It’s vindication that Irish-American is a real, distinct cultural identity, despite what some Irish nay-sayers might claim. Seamus Keane says that “Irish America” is something the band discusses often, thinking of it as a spectrum or continuum where the two national identities meet and mix to varying degrees. Four of the band members are sons of Irish parents, and yet they have watched their younger siblings become more Americanized as they themselves stay more Irish. In the context of this column, I often analyze Irish America myself, but I have yet to see anyone capture its paradoxes quite as well as Seamus Keane, which is why I must reiterate his Wildean humor here. “Irish America in 2019,” Keane says, “is its own thing altogether. One part Donald Trump, two parts Civil Service, construction and pubs, mix in equal parts GAA and AOH, finish with three parts Wolfe Tones. A contradictory recipe for a terrible conversation at Thanksgiving Dinner.”
As Keane’s words indicate, the music and mission of the Narrowbacks is about having fun, having a laugh, and yet still paying respect to your cultural history and heritage. The Narrowbacks have achieved the perfect balance of amusement and tradition with “By Hook or By Crook.” Final verdict says if you’d rather not talk politics over Thanksgiving dinner, you’re much better off playing “By Hook or By Crook” on the stereo.
Find out more about the Narrowbacks, catch them live, and most importantly, check out “By Hook or By Crook” at narrowbacks.com. You can also follow the band on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Spotify, where you’ll find their forthcoming music videos.