The long road home

The Dropkick Murphys, symbols of the city that launched their careers, return to Boston

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / March 11, 2009
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CHICAGO - Outside the old Congress Theater in an edgy neighborhood 4 miles from the Loop, three sleek tour buses and an 18-wheel tractor-trailer fill most of a side street while the Dropkick Murphys run through a sound check for that night's sold-out concert.

The well-appointed caravan dramatizes how far the Boston-based band has come. On road trips back in the 1990s, they were a struggling Celtic-punk band, traveling in a van once used by the MBTA for the handicapped.

"It had a hole in the roof and we put a funnel out the back so we could take a leak when we went out of town to places like [Washington], D.C. without making stops," Ken Casey, a founding member, recalled.

After 13 years of relentless touring, the Dropkick Murphys now travel in comfort, a band with a streetwise Boston-Irish identity, a loyal international following, and mainstream cachet that is rare for an outfit born in the raw underground of punk. They may be the house band of the Red Sox with a theme song in an Oscar-winning movie, but they are not ambassadors for a chamber of commerce image of Boston. Instead, they represent the grittier enclaves of the city's shrinking white working class, whose stories they tell in song after song.

But for all the appeal of their music and blue-collar egalitarianism, the band's stature is also attributable to Casey's business acumen.

"It's all very, very smart," said Dicky Barrett, lead singer of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, a ska-punk band out of Bos ton that hit it big i n the late 1990s and has t oured with the Murphys. Casey, he said, studied the Bosstones' success. "Whatever we did well, Kenny and the Dropkick Murphy s became us on steroids," Barrett said. "He knows what he has, he knows who likes it and wants it, and he delivers it."

Chicago is day eight of a punishing 6,000-mile sprint that began in Los Angeles and will culminate with the holy week of Dropkickdom - the band's ninth consecutive St. Patrick's Day b lowout in Boston. Dubbed "All Roads Lead to Boston," the tour has drawn sellouts, even in wintry outposts like Fargo, N.D., and some diehards will travel thousands of miles for the ritualistic gathering of the tribe on the band's home sod. Starting tomorrow night, the six-day, seven-show stand is at the new House of Blues on Lansdowne Street, where the band will record material for its second live album and a concert DVD.

When they hit the stage for the final show on March 17, the Murphys will cap a year in which they played in 30 states and 16 other countries on four continents - 12 in Europe; Japan in Asia; Australia and New Zealand; and Mexico, their first foray south of the Rio Grande.

"I knew that to make it in Boston, you had to get out of Boston," said Casey, a Milton native and father of two who turns 40 next month. But the early goals were modest. "We were headlining eight-band matinees at the Rat," the notable Kenmore Square dive that closed in 1997, "and we'd give all the money to the out-of-town bands. Then they'd invite us to play at their gigs in New York, Baltimore, wherever."

Rick Barton, the band's original guitarist who left after a falling out with Casey in 2000, said Casey was a magician at growing the fan base organically. "Kenny was always the brains behind this project, and it was amazing how he could get the 10 people who came to the first show in a city to become 30 who showed up the next time and 100 after that," said Barton, who has reconciled with Casey and, with his new band, Everybody Out!, has toured with the Murphys.

The Internet has made outreach easier than in the do-it-yourself days. The band now has an e-mail list of 50,000 fans and 270,000 MySpace friends, according to Dianne Meyer, a transplant from Australia who manages the Murphys from Los Angeles. Via e-mail, Casey keeps up friendships with a legion of early followers.

For a punk-inspired act with scant radio airplay or promotional budgets, the band enjoys remarkable longevity. Record sales now total around 3 million, Meyer said. Robust sales of merchandise pays many bills. At concerts, most fans sport T-shirts with an array of Dropkick Murphys logos that evoke specific songs, tours, or affinities.

At the outset, the Murphys were a four-man Oi!/streetpunk unit with Irish folk influences. Casey, the bassist and principal lyricist, is the only original member, and the band has grown to six instrumentalists and singer Al Barr, a gravel-voiced shouter who adds an aggressive edge to the group's distinctive sound. Barr, from Portsmouth, N.H., trades lead vocals with Casey during most songs and also writes lyrics.

Today, the Irish elements are fully integrated in tight, hard-driving arrangements filled with melodic hooks and roaring choruses.

On stage and in the studio, the band layers traditional and nontraditional instruments - bagpipes, tin whistle, accordion, banjo, and mandolin - over a foundation of punk and rock 'n' roll styles.

Joining Casey is drummer Matt Kelly, guitarist James Lynch, multi-instrumentalists Tim Brennan and Jeff DaRosa, and bagpiper Scruffy Wallace.

Like so many local bands, the Murphys wear their Boston bona fides on their sleeves. The difference is they write Boston-centered songs on working-class themes laced with outrage, amusement, fatalism, and sentimentality.

The Red Sox connection opened doors - the band has played Fenway Park and team rallies many times. Returning to New York after the Sox broke the curse in 2004, they played "Tessie," their Sox anthem, and a video highlighting the spectacular collapse of the Yankees in the league championship series. Boos and beers rained onto the stage.

"I yelled, 'Hey, you can't expect us to wait 86 years to rub it in and then not rub it in,' " Casey recalled.

Of the sports mania, the Bosstones' Barrett said, "Enough already, but Kenny truly believes in it, and he believes in the town and all the causes he gets behind." Among those include benefits for charities and labor unions and donations of band merchandise for auctions.

The breakout came in 2006 when Martin Scorsese featured "Shipping Up to Boston" in "The Departed," his Oscar-winning film about the Irish mob and crooked police in Boston. Within a year, the tune was filling Fenway Park every time Jonathan Papelbon, a Red Sox closer and a Murphys fan, warmed up on the mound. The single, approaching sales of 800,000, is now played in many sporting venues.

The Australian Football League bought the rights to play it at the end of games this year, Meyer said.

With success has come grumbling about the Murphys "going 'Riverdance' " to broaden their appeal.

"To progress, they had to evolve," said Newton native Curtis Casella, who runs TAANG! Records, a punk label based in San Diego. "They've hit every genre and subgenre and still kept their fans, which is hard to do, especially for a punk rock band. It's weird to say this, but I think you're going to see the Dropkicks play until they're in their 60s. They'll be the Rolling Stones of punk rock."

In Chicago, a city that dyes its river green for the feast of St. Patrick, the band has staying power from years of assiduously building the fan base.

The Congress Theater, a hulking, 1920s-vintage neighborhood "movie palace," retains a shabby grandeur. With a vast open floor under a huge domed roof, it's well-suited for 3,800 well-oiled, fist-pumping Murphys fans.

It's also the upper limit of venues for the Murphys, Casey said, who've kept general-admission ticket prices in the $25- to $30-range for years. On the arena circuit in 2008, the average ticket price was $67 for top-grossing tours.

"Punk rock, in this day and age, is not really offensive or scary anymore to anyone; it's kind of like the rock 'n' roll of my generation," he said. "But there is a ceiling when you want to be a band of our nature that tries to keep ticket prices low."

"This is our niche right here. This is where we're most comfortable."

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