Like a swaggering Boston-Irish AC/DC, Dropkick Murphys more than live up to the image suggested by their name. Drawing on the pugilistic approach of early punk acts like Stiff Little Fingers, The Ramones and The Clash, as well as their most obvious antecedents The Pogues, the Murphys take the stage like bruisers looking for a bar brawl in the local boozer. “The boys are back and they’re looking for trouble,” barks bellicose singer Al Bell before a huge crowd in a You Tube concert from last summer.
"We're happy with a distinct style and sound,” bassist and co-founder Ken Casey told Rolling Stone last year. That sound is a rousing clarion call to the faithful (of which there are many) to follow their free flag and join the boys on the battlefront.
Coming to Track 29 on Monday, June 3, Dropkick Murphys bring a breathless fusion of the boisterous three-chord, two-minute start-to-stop immediacy of The Ramones’ early over-caffeinated catalog, mixed with the beery embrace of Irish drinking anthems. “Punk is a kind of sing-along music with a rousing energy. And Irish music is the same thing," said Casey in an interview in the Houston Chronicle.
In concert, their version of the old folk song, “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya” thunders along like an untethered carthorse. As with most of their songs they don’t exactly sing; it’s more a collective shout from Bell and bassist Casey, supported by drummer Matt Kelly and guitarist James Lynch. In the concert on You Tube, the old folk song segues into an equally pugnacious take on the union fight song, “Which Side Are You On?” For The Murphys, the answer is obvious; they’re always willing to help out the working class, particularly when union workers are threatened as they were in Wisconsin a couple of years ago. “Take ’Em Down,” a song from their “ Going Out In Style” album became an anthem during the confrontation between the unions and Wisconsin’s governor in 2011. They also sold a special T-shirt helping to raise funds for the Workers’ Rights Emergency Response Fund that year.
But while they are always available for Democratic political causes, they are truly a populist band with deep roots in the primarily Irish American Boston suburb of East Milton. It was there that bassist and singer Casey formed the band in 1996 with three friends, all of whom have since left the band. Singer Al Barr, the only member of the band who isn’t of Irish descent—his father is of Scottish descent, while his mother’s family is German—joined the band in 1998. Along with drummer Matt Kelly and guitarist James Lynch, he’s the oldest member of the band.
The band’s consistent core and stylistic constancy have earned it a deeply loyal following, particularly in Boston where their take on Woody Guthrie’s witty “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” was adopted by Red Sox’s pitcher Jonathan Papelbon, who danced a jig to the song several times during the Red Sox’s Championship season in 2007.
Following the bombings at the Boston Marathon last month the band, who’d been playing on the West Coast at the time, immediately created a “For Boston” T-shirt selling it on their website to raise funds for the victims of the assault. Within a couple of days they’d raised $100,000. They’ve also re-recorded “Rose Tattoo,” a song from their most recent album, “ Signed and Sealed In Blood ,” with Bruce Springsteen. The song, which includes the verse, “You’ll always be there with me / Even if you’re gone / You’ll always have my love / Our memory will live on,” is part of three-song “ Rose Tattoo for Boston Charity EP .” All of the proceeds from the sales of the T-shirt and the EP will be disbursed directly to the victims of the Boston bombing through The Claddagh Fund, set up by the band.
Like Springsteen, Dropkick Murphys have never strayed far from their roots, personally and professionally. As so many commentators noted during and after the recent tragedy, Boston is a city with a deeply rooted population not easily shaken or deterred—and these guys are the embodiment of that spirit.
This is my last weekly column for The Pulse . It was Bill Ramsey who persuaded me to write it, and I’ll always be grateful to him for his ceaseless support and encouragement. I will still write for the paper on a monthly basis—weekly columns are much harder and more time-consuming than they look (I hope). Thanks for the feedback and support—it’s made it all worthwhile.