Michael Black hails from the foremost family of Irish song, which includes siblings, Mary, Frances, Shay and Martin. He has been playing music and singing songs all his life and though from Dublin, he has lived in Limerick, London and then emigrated to the bay area of San Francisco. His repertoire is very broad and includes old Dublin street songs, stories of emigration and history, folk songs from the Irish, English and Scottish traditions, along with music from contemporary writers. These days he mainly performs with his brother, Shay, they are regarded as two of the best harmony singers in the Irish genre. The brothers have a special fondness for songs that include their audience in chorus. They also feature two fine musicians in their band – Eamonn Flynn on piano and Felim Egan on accordion so theirperformances often include a lot of up-tempo reels and jigs, and sometimes some mighty fine dancing. Each show is interspersed with stories, jokes and humorous childhood anecdotes, so that audiences invariably leave their concerts smiling broadly and humming new choruses. Shay and Michael have toured the U.S. regularly but mainly confine their performances to the Western states of the U.S.
Michael began his career in music by listening to his mother, Patty Black, singing around the kitchen during his childhood. His father, Kevin Black, was an accomplished musician from Rathlin Island, where he came from a family of musicians who played regularly for the Island Ceili Dances. When his father moved to Dublin in the 1940’s he met Patty and they got married in 1949. Their house in Dublin became a home where informal “hoolies” were held on many a weekend where friends would gather after the pub closed and there would be songs and stories going on until the wee hours of the morning. It was here that Michael, (and his brothers and sisters) were paraded out to sing their party pieces. The Black progenies were doing this from the time they could talk! Michael’s love of music stems from his parent’s desire to see music and song as a cherished and vital part of everyday life. It was always a “natural” for him to sing. His mother quickly recognized his talent as a singer and she had him singing on stage when he was eight. Even then, he was always seen as someone with a precocious talent. Soon Michael and the rest of the Black children became natural crowd pleasers, having had a regular diet of informal performances in such a supportive home environment.
However, it wasn’t until Michael was 14 that he began to take a more active involvement in music. By that time his older brother, Shay, had purchased an Egmond guitar for fourteen pounds and was working his way through chords and learning songs from many sources. Thus Michael also took an interest, and seeing as the guitar was always in tune, he decided to become proficient.
At this time, there were a number of instruments lying around the house (as Kevin was a multi-instrumentalist although his first love was the mandolin). It was Michael’s insatiable love of traditional instruments that caused him to follow in his father’s footsteps by picking up the mandolin and working out various chords and some tunes.
In the late ‘60s Irish traditional music was not that popular in the urban setting of Dublin, so the Black boys would hide the fact that they listened to some of the early radio shows on Irish music including “the Walton Hour” and Ceili House every Saturday. As the boys became more polished and confident, they began playing at folk clubs and coffee houses around the Dublin area. Their early performances were with their sister, Mary, and some friends when they were in their late teens.
The boys often played at sessions in the Dublin area but traditional Irish music in pubs was discouraged in the early seventies in Dublin so the boys would find themselves heading off for the weekend “down the country” to play in pubs where they would be welcomed. Their influences were many at this time. As Michael was playing mandolin and then mandolin banjo, he listened to some of the older traditional musicians for tunes. Shay, by this time, was an avid collector of songs and was listening to the Johnstons, and many artists in England such as Sandy Denny, Dick Geoghan, Leon Rosselsome, and Nic Jones.
Michael “discovered” the tenor banjo in his twenties and continues to perform his gigs with banjo, guitar and “guittern” (ten stringed instrument with guitar body). He had left school at 14 to work in the infamous Guinness Brewery, and after 11 years there he left to go to college outside of London. Whilst in England, he began his own Irish sessions in the pubs of South London with some Irish friends and organized a folk club at his college where many Irish artists performed including his own family, Christy Moore and many others.
From England, he moved back to Limerick and became active in the Irish music scene there, particularly with sessions. By 1985, many people had suggested that he and his siblings record an album together and this they did, entitled, The Black Family, where all five members were involved. The release of the album became an important event for all the family members, essentially launching their professional careers (www.black-brothers.com. www.mary-black.net, www.frances-black.net). They continued to release a number of albums over the years, the latest entitled, Our Time Together. Michael came to California in 1984 to study at UC Berkeley and it was here that he began performing solo on a regular basis at the Plough and Stars in San Francisco. He began performing with many of Ireland’s best musicians including Nollaig Casey, Noel Hill, Paddy Keenan, John Whelan, Liz Carroll and John Doyle. Every March he would invite his brother, Martin, to help him out with a few gigs. Around 1990, big brother, Shay also came out for some Bay Area performances. The Brothers became so popular that a number of promoters clamored for their appearance at festivals and various local venues, and their performances became more frequent in the US. They have continued to perform as the Black Brothers, gracing stages spanning both coasts, sometimes “hopping the pond” to perform in Europe as well.
Michael has rejuvenated his solo career and has begun performing at venues around the US, Canada, New Zealand and in Iceland. He has played at the Celtic Colors Festival in Nova Scotia and in one of his performances in Hawaii he was joined by Liam Clancy of Clancy Brothers Fame. His solo album Michael Black (2007), produced by John Doyle was voted “Album of the Year” by Celtic Connections (Radio show broadcast in 22 states). The Irish Times in its review of the album noted, “There's enough pristine music tucked inside this solo collection ….to power a rocket. Irish Music Magazine stated, “This is an album that’s beautifully simple and simply beautiful….Michael’s voice shines through on every track”. Featured on the album are Mary, Frances, Shay and Martin Black, John Doyle, Liz Carroll, John Williams, Dirk Powell and Seamus Egan, amongst others (www.compassrecords.com). Michael continues to play guitar and banjo, but his real love is the songs. Michael believes that songs and music “are good for the soul” and this inherent love of music continues to give him an emotional lift that can only inspire musical endeavors in the years to come.