Section: Health,  Page: D4

Date: Saturday, July 11, 2009

ALBANY -- In recent years, the Alive at Five concert series has hosted two nights of Irish music during their summer season of shows, but this year, it was down to one. Fortunately on Thursday night, the double-bill of Black 47 and Kevin McKrell's new all-star line-up delivered enough powerhouse Emerald Isle sound to make up for it.

McKrell and his Hard Road Ceili Band kicked off the evening with a set that ranged from rousing Celtic classics ("The Bold Fenian Men") to intimate ballads ("The Shores of America"). In addition to McKrell and his daughter Katie, the band featured electric guitarist Brian Gibney (of the Fighting 86's), percussionist Brian Melick, bassist Rick Bedrosian (of Hair of the Dog) and the fine fiddler-singer Sara Milonovich, and each of them had their moments to shine.

Gibney brought rock 'n' roll fire to Christy Moore's can't-miss anthem, "Ride On," while Milonovich sparkled on her own "Willie Taylor," which she described as "the feminist response" to the traditional murder ballad, "Matty Groves."

Meanwhile, Melick's exotic world music percussion transformed "Travelling Man" into something that can only be described as a Celtic samba.

Likewise, New York City's Black 47 wasn't about to play it traditional, either. Led by the firey Larry Kirwan on guitar and vocals, the Irish-meets-rock band is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and they know how to work a crowd with their music. Building on the standard rock bass-drums-guitar line-up with trombone, saxophone and uilleann pipes, the band has a broad palette of sound to work with, and they stretched it far and wide.

Of course, there were hot-wired, distortion-drenched jigs and rockin' reels, but the uninitiated may not have been expecting a blast of Irish reggae (Bob Marley's signature "Three Little Birds") with Geoffrey Byrne's tenor sax chirping along. They might not have expected the funk throwdown of "Rockin' the Bronx" with bassist Joe Burcaw anchoring the bottom end.

"Fire of Freedom," meanwhile, melded together ska with music-hall oom-pah -- with an extra serving of oomph. And with its surprisingly effective blend of Celtic, hip-hop and even a Dixieland jazz-styled breakdown, the opening volley of "Green Suede Shoes" should have alerted the crowd that anything goes.

But it's a good bet that not even the die-hard Black 47 fans ---- the ones who were at Bogie's for the band's Albany debut back in 1993 -- were ready for the sneak preview of their upcoming album. It was a bouncy little ditty about a Jewish-Irish romance, "Izzy's Irish Rose," that somewhere veered off into a full-blown rip-roaring rendition of "Hava Nagila."

Black 47 didn't pull any punches lyrically, either, showcasing a pair of boldly political tunes from their most recent album, "Iraq." Kirwan fell back into rap mode for "Downtown Baghdad Blues," but "Ramadi" was a heart-tugging ballad from the point of view of a soldier trapped behind enemy lines and thinking about his girlfriend back home. From a veteran band with an undeniable knack for big, rousing anthems, it was a perfectly tender, touching moment.

Greg Haymes is a freelance writer from Rensselaer County.