It’s late in the afternoon on the Sunday before Memorial Day, and I’m hanging out backstage at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, where the rain is holding off even though there hasn’t been more than a minute of sunlight all day. One of New England’s biggest annual rock concerts, the River Rave, is in full swing, and everywhere I look there’s a genuine MTV-sanctioned rock star — Benji from Good Charlotte, Amy from Evanescence, Bert from the Used — eating dinner or signing autographs. But even with A-listers like that in attendance, the person with the biggest entourage is Ken Casey, the unassuming singer and bassist of Boston punk heroes Dropkick Murphys. Earlier, when the band’s guest list went missing in action, he dutifully showed up at the front gate to track it down. Now he’s watching a live video feed of the show with a lively assortment of friends and family when the Dropkicks get a shout-out from an unlikely source — commercial hard-rockers Saliva.
Casey seems just as amused by the gesture as he is appreciative of it, but he says it’s far from the strangest shout-out the group have ever received. That came courtesy of Eminem associates D12, who played a few dates with the Dropkicks on the 2001 Vans Warped Tour before they got kicked off the tour for assaulting rival rapper Esham backstage.
"Every day, D12 would get on stage like, ‘This goes out to our boys Dropkick Murphys.’ We were like, ‘All right!’ We never met them, never talked to them, they beat up like 10 people on the tour. Buses weren’t supposed to come anywhere near the stage, but their bus would just come barreling up to the stage. The doors would open, 12 guys would run off with wireless microphones, they’d do their set, give us a shout-out, run back on the bus, and leave the venue. We swear they must have just grabbed the list and said, ‘We need some band who we’re supposedly friends with.’"
Clearly, there’s more than a little rock-and-roll prestige in throwing the name Dropkick Murphys around: in the five years since the release of their first album, Do or Die, the band have made a name for themselves as one of the most popular acts on the international punk touring circuit. Their last two discs, The Gang’s All Here and Sing Loud, Sing Proud!, both cracked the Billboard 200 album chart and proved the group were not content to rest on their laurels. This March, their four-night stand at Avalon on St. Patrick’s Day weekend broke the venue’s all-time attendance record.
Now the Dropkicks are back with Blackout, their fourth album on Hellcat, the Epitaph-distributed punk label run by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong. Along with Rancid, the band are about to head off on the entire 2003 Vans Warped Tour, which stops by Brockton Fairgrounds on Thursday, July 31. At the River Rave, they got to headline over Good Charlotte as part of a pre-release publicity blitz that also included a performance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and a hometown listening party at the Paradise. They’ve obviously come a long way from their humble beginnings in the Boston punk scene, but Casey has his eyes on a more meaningful prize than the often fleeting success of mainstream acts like Saliva and D12.
"We’ve already accomplished all the goals and then some," he says. "I think at this point, it’s longevity — being one of those bands like Rancid, NOFX, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, in terms of the more current-day bands. You know, the Bosstones have been doing it for 20 years. We’ve been doing it for seven years now, and we just want to be able to maintain integrity and keep doing what we love."
Like Sing Loud, Blackout was produced by Casey at the Outpost in Stoughton. The album marks the first time since Do or Die that the band have made it through the writing and recording process without losing an original member, but they did weather the departure of bagpiper and fan favorite Spicy McHaggis, who quit the group to settle down with a girl he met on the road. He’s since been replaced by Scruffy Wallace, although long-time Dropkicks buddy Joe Delaney played pipes on the new disc.
The band throw fans a curveball on the album’s leadoff track and first single, "Walk Away," a mid-tempo rocker with no mandolin, bagpipes, or any other sign of their trademark Irish-folk influence. Guitarists James Lynch and Marc Orrell bring the melody, while Casey and drummer Matt Kelly forcefully lead the way through the song’s offbeat arrangement. Singers Al Barr and Casey growl a pair of accusatory verses at deadbeat dads before launching into a fervent sing-along: "The ones that you loved/The ones that you left behind/The ones you said you’d try to find/Are they trying to find you?" In the track’s hilarious video, a host of Boston rock luminaries, including Dicky Barrett and Lenny Lashley, join the group at the punkest wedding reception ever. But Casey gets serious when discussing the song’s subject matter.
"It’s something that’s obviously a huge problem. You just see so many teenagers now who think it’s cool to have a kid — you know, they’ve got one at the show with a little Fred Perry shirt on. Then we come through the next time, and they’re split up. We don’t try to be preachy, but sometimes when you’re writing songs and you think about stuff, it might be a socially conscious issue."
For "Gonna Be a Blackout Tonight," the band had the privilege of writing music around a set of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics ˆ la Billy Bragg and Wilco. The opportunity arose when Guthrie’s daughter Nora approached them at the suggestion of her son, a big Dropkicks fan. Since the lyrics they chose are about turning the lights out during the World War II air raids in London, it’s only appropriate that the group set them to the tune of a frantic assault that reflects their love for classic hardcore. The first pressing of the CD comes with a bonus DVD that includes a stylish performance video for the track.
"That was one of the highlights of the band’s career," says Casey. "We had this song we were working on, and the lyrics to ‘Gonna Be a Blackout Tonight’ fit into it. We wanted to do something out of left field with the song instead of something along the lines of Billy Bragg and Wilco. We just wanted to fuck it up as much as possible, no disrespect. What’s cool about Nora Guthrie is, she was like, ‘Do your own interpretation of it.’ Ironically, I think it’s the heaviest song on the record."
As the cover shot of Orrell doing a windmill on a Les Paul suggests, Blackout is the closest thing to a straight-up rock album the Dropkicks have ever made. But they continue to dig deep for Irish-folk standards, breaking out the bagpipes and the Guinness for rousing takes on "Worker’s Song," "Black Velvet Band," and "Fields of Athenry." On "The Dirty Glass," Casey and guest vocalist Stephanie Dougherty have a lover’s spat while the band provide upbeat Celt-punk accompaniment. "Buried Alive" is a raucous tribute to the nine men who got trapped in a Pennsylvania coal mine last summer, and Barr shines on the bittersweet ballad "World Full of Hate."
"It’s always good to have a ballad — when your grandmother asks to hear the new album, you put that track on," cracks Casey. "We just did things differently, like putting a ballad that far up on the album, or starting with the song that wasn’t the typical anthem. Everybody and their brother are doing Irish punk now. As much as that’s always been a part of us, we’ve always mixed it up. You don’t want to repeat the same thing over and over."
Hockey freak Casey gets to indulge himself on "Time To Go," an accordion-laced Bruins fight song with a chorus he has probably been waiting to use since the start of the band: "Go! Go! Black and Gold!" "I took so much shit from the non-hockey-fan members of the band when we were making the record, but now they actually like it," he says. "This St. Patrick’s Day a bunch of the players came to see us, and for me that’s just cool. We had the video screen down playing Bruins fights while we were playing. P.J. Stock was there, and he didn’t even know his fights were playing until the screen came down."
The Dropkicks start their River Rave set on a familiar note with the slam-dance-friendly "For Boston," but things change quickly from there. No "Finnegan’s Wake" or "The Wild Rover" tonight — they’ve got a bunch of new songs to play instead. "Gonna Be a Blackout Tonight" and "Buried Alive" are a spirited blur, and everyone sings along to the swaggering "Walk Away." Dougherty hits the stage twice: once for "The Dirty Glass," and again to duet with Barr on the ’60s folk standard "If I Were a Carpenter," which stretches into a blistering guitar jam. Orrell and mandolinist Ryan Foltz supply most of the melodic flair, and Wallace does his predecessor proud on "The Spicy McHaggis Jig."
The band draw from Sing Loud for the bulk of the set, and they close with the crowd-pleasing oldies "Boys on the Docks" and "Skinhead on the MBTA." As always, the stage gets flooded with fans during the hometown classic "Skinhead." It’s a proper sendoff, and a night on which the Dropkicks easily hold their own against some of the biggest names in rock.
Dropkick Murphys perform at the 2003 Vans Warped Tour on Thursday, July 31 at Brockton Fairgrounds. Call (508) 586-8000.