Dropkick Murphys at the 9:30 Club

The Boston Irish rockers Dropkick Murphys perform at DC's 9:30 Club. Photo: Dropkick Murphys

WASHINGTON, April 2, 2013 – There are very few bands that associate with their cultural heritage the way Dropkick Murphys embody their Irish-Americanism. Not only does the band wear this identification as a badge of honor. So does their loyal fan base. This shared American ancestry isn’t just a source of pride for the band. It also doubles as a well for the band’s material, a repertoire that appears to be endlessly deep. That was no more apparent then when Dropkick Murphys played at the 9:30 Club a week before St. Patrick’s Day.

When Dropkick Murphys first started out, the Irish roots of the band were more of an undertone, accentuating what was a fairly straightforward punk band. On their early recordings, they would slip in the bagpipes every so often, but it seemed like just a way to add a bit of novelty.

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As time went on, their sound became fuller and their scope became broader. Not only did the bagpipes become a staple of the band’s sound, but they also added a mandolin and an accordion, along with several other instruments to go along with what was still essentially a punk band.  Eventually, they evolved into a prominent “Celtic Punk” band – and really the only one of any major importance. Concurrently, their shows began to resemble an elaborate St. Patrick’s Day party, contemporary style.

This is really what a Dropkick Murphys show really is: a sold out party for anyone wanting to identify with the Irish ancestry, and those who lack that connection but get to pretend for a night that they do.

At times, it’s difficult to focus on the band on stage because of all the excitement typically going on with the crowd. It’s not chaotic in the sense that people are being unruly. But there is a lot of movement at all times when this band appears, and everyone there is clearly in the frame of mind to have a good time. For that reason alone, Dropkick Murphys are essentially the best background music band anyone is ever likely to see, and that’s exactly the kind of atmosphere the band seems to foster during its shows.

That’s not to say the band doesn’t want people to focus on them, but that seems almost beside the point.  Dropkick Murphys have never been a band that’s known for its underlying depth.  Their songs aren’t meant to be absorbed, prodded, and dissected in order to excavate some deeper meaning.

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When Al Barr and Ken Casey hold forth in their highly individualized vocal styles, they’re not trying to inspire deep thoughts. Everything they sing about is on the surface, transparent for the audience to feel. They are entertainers in the best sense of the word, with the sole intention of firing up their audience to get them caught up in the spirit of the music and have a good time. That said, the band sings and plays with great emotion, wearing their hearts on their sleeves and never leaving a doubt that they want the audience to forget that.

None of this is exactly new for a punk band. Indeed, that’s essentially what a punk band is supposed to be on most levels. But Dropkick Murphys have been around for the most part since 1996. Given that kind of longevity, no matter how energetic and emotive the band is, their basic set-up would likely have gotten stale after a time. But they’ve headed this off by progressively updating their sound over the years.

This kind of evolution has actually caused Dropkick Murphys to stay in the forefront of their genre. Any number of bands will associate themselves with a certain culture – and this does seem to happen as much with the Irish as with anyone – but the Murphys take it a step further.  When they say they’re proud of their Irish roots, they are equally determined to show this to their audience without explicitly stating it. Everything they play, especially their later material, has a folksy Irish touch to it. Most people just associate this with their use of bagpipes. But Irishness is embedded in everything they deploy instrumentally, from the mandolins and accordions to the tin whistles and banjos.  Yet even these traditional instruments are played at the pace of a traditional punk band, so their set never slows down even for a second.

After performing for over 15 years, Dropkick Murphys could get lazy, letting each show feel just the same as one they might have played five or six years earlier. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem likely. Not only are they unafraid to mix up their sound and introduce new, subtle directions. But ultimately, they’re always focused on their prime directive: they just want everyone to have a good time. It’s a cycle of tradition and renewal that keeps Dropkick Murphys out there performing, and it’ll likely help them to keep the party going well into the future.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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