Concert Preview: Dropkick Murphys are Warped on old-school punk
The last time the Dropkick Murphys rode in with the Vans Warped Tour, two years ago, the Boston band almost didn't play. There was a stagehands' strike at the Station Square amphitheater, and, naturally, bands that raise their fists to unions and the working man don't cross picket lines.
We're all in the local musicians' union in Boston," says singer Al Barr, "and our first spin was we're not going to cross the picket line. They asked us to go on stage wearing the T-shirts of their local and bring some awareness to the cause, which we were more than happy to do. And we said a couple things from the stage, and then afterwards we played an acoustic set in the parking lot for the picketers and the kids. We heard a couple weeks later that they won their concessions."
Dropkick Murphys are back now, playing the full two months on the Warped Tour, and when we talk, Barr says, in this thick Boston accent, that the band is in the midst of a grueling 19-days-in-a-row stretch, playing anywhere from 12:30 in the afternoon to 8:30 at night. It's a work ethic that suits the band, though.
"It's a lottery, which is good, which is fair," Barr says of the playing times. "No one knows when they're gonna go on, there's no preferential treatment due to record sales or any [b.s.] like that. It's all about being here and being one of many."
The Murphys, combining the righteous rage of The Clash with the rip-roaring Celtic fury of The Pogues, represent a more old-school punk approach on a lineup that's thick with bratty pop-punk bands. But Barr is in no frame of mind to discriminate.
"I'm not a fan of that ilk in terms of music, but everyone's been very friendly, you know what I mean. It might not be my cup of tea, but that doesn't mean I gotta hate on 'em just because it's not somethin' I would listen to. Everyone's got their hand out in friendship here. It sounds kind of hippie-ish, but we're all here for two months and we don't need animosity for animosity's sake."
The Murphys, which formed in 1995 and were produced early on by Lars Frederiksen of Rancid, are on the road with their fourth studio album, "Blackout." Although it might be the cleanest-sounding of the four records, the band hasn't toned down any of its intensity, as the record still roars with working-class anthems.
The album title is taken from "Gonna Be a Blackout Tonight," a song that resulted from an invitation by Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody Guthrie and mother of a Murphys fan, to use one of her father's unrecorded songs, as Wilco and Billy Bragg had previously done.
Was Barr surprised that a bunch of rowdy punks like the Murphys would get such an invite?
"Yes and no," he says. "It was a surprise and a great honor. The only reason that I say no is because I think punk is the folk music of today, too, you know. It has a lot more in common with it than not. But it was definitely a surprise to be asked to do that, go down to his archive and pick out songs."
Band founder Ken Casey visited the Guthrie archive and went back to the Murphys with a pile of photocopies that they sifted through over a period of months.
"We had music we were calling 'Reggae-Ramone,' " Barr says. "We had no lyrics for it. At the same time, we had these lyrics, and we were saying, 'How are we going to write music for this?' Ken and I were at his house working on songs, and he had a handheld recorder of the music that ended up being 'Blackout' music, and we were looking at the lyrics and thought, 'This might work.' It just came together, which was great, because it was a pretty ominous task."
It turned out to be one of the punkest songs on the record.
"We're hoping that Woody isn't spinning in his grave right now -- that he liked the tune."
Despite having a strong punk ethic and rebellious attitude in a time of political upheaval, the Murphys don't make any direct political overtures on "Blackout" and aren't saying much from the stage.
"We're not much of a soapbox band, brother," Barr says. "If we're going to incorporate something, it's going to be more in the song. We're the kind of band that, if there's a fight or something going on in the crowd, we'll stop playing and sort that out, but we got a half-hour to play on the Warped Tour, we're not gonna soak up the time with a lot of useless banter about our opinions on the world when there's a lot of people in front of the stage with a lot of opinions on the world, too, and the only difference is they don't got a PA.
"None of us are out there in the desert with helmets on our heads right now," he adds. "We're not gonna sit there and talk about this or that. George Bush is an [expletive]. I got no problem saying that, but I think everyone coming to the Warped Tour pretty much knows that anyway, you know what I mean?"
Seeing as how the Warped Tour is happening the same night as Bruce Springsteen at PNC Park, it's hard to resist asking Barr which show he would go to.
"I've been on the Warped Tour all summer," he says, "so I gotta say I'd go see Bruce. I'm a fan, you know. I love Bruce Springsteen. But, I mean, I'm not going to be able to. I gotta do my job, you know what I mean? The guy plays for, like, 2 1/2, three hours. Amazing. I'm definitely a fan. But I think Bruce'll be on the Warped Tour soon, you know what I mean? He strikes me as that kind of guy."
By Scott Mervis, Post-Gazette Weekend Editor