The peoples of Manchester and Boston, Massachusetts are not far removed – both towns became giants of industry built on cotton during the Industrial Revolution and proved to be a welcoming home for any who wished to start a new life. Both of these cities became beacons for migrating Irish, creating tight-knit communities to ease the often horrific hardships endured within their new-found locales, and bringing with them their traditions and home comforts which have lasted to this day – particularly in music. It’s not surprising at all to see that the Massachusetts outfit are adored within Manchester – Dropkick Murphys are to all intents and purposes the defacto face of Celtic-infused punk rock, with their trademark hybrid sound straddling traditional folk and hardcore punk, a mixture of pride and defiance befitting their proudly working-class heritage, songs of and for their parents and grandparents. With this, the two support bands chosen for the show represent the two halves of the Dropkick’s sound, the yin and yang separated entirely.
First are Isle Of Wight trio Grade 2, who hit hard and hit fast, hyperkinetic back-to-basics punk rock channelling the spirit of 1976, with a keen ear for pop melodies and a uniform of blue jeans and battered Doc Martens. Impossibly young but with several years’ experience and a sizable cult following, the three show boundless enthusiasm as they throw themselves into their songs as well as around the stage – this is punk at its most stripped back (to use the famous Sniffin’ Glue cover: “This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band.”) – calling Grade 2’s music simple or basic feels like a knock against them, but this is not the case at all- it is in this simplicity that the musicianship shines: Jacob Hull’s tight, in-the-pocket drumming; ragged gang vocals occasionally coalescing into harmonies before disintegrating away back into loose shouts, and Jack Chatfield’s bass playing showing influence beyond the first wave of punk- high-toned and melodic riffs closer in spirit to the early 90s’ skate-punk scene. ‘Graveyard Island’, a track off Grade 2’s upcoming release is arguably the strongest (or at least most clear) indication of Grade 2’s philosophy – this is the sound of suburban boredom being bludgeoned to death with creativity and style.
A complete culture-clash from Grade 2, The Devil Makes Three offer the near-sell-out crowd a passionate, genuine love-letter to the old-timey, firing their way through their timeless mixture of Americana and bluegrass complimented by jazzy, splashing drums and underpinned by the bluesy upright bass of Lucia Turino, built around Cooper McBean’s banjo skills (said banjo emblazoned with a Woody Guthrie paraphrase – THIS MACHINE ANNOYS FASCISTS) and tight, close harmonies from the main trio, giving main vocal Pete Bernhard’s already strong voice that extra power and finesse. This is the music of an idyllic, idealistic Middle America of years gone- a sepia-tinted sleepy main street, the sound of Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel’s campaign trail (…considering O’Daniel’s opponent, the reform candidate Homer Stokes’ affiliation to a…certain secret society and McBean’s banjo slogan, this would be likely.*). Or, if you prefer, classic getaway music. The Devil Makes Three effortlessly captivate the audience through incredibly charming and charismatic style, with some serious musical chops on display, never feeling self-indulgent or overstaying any welcomes- even when the quartet leap into a snippet of Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’, and when the banjo is swapped out for a shimmering electric guitar, the band’s sound subtly evolves into sun-kissed West Coast pop yet still keeping to their Americana stylings. Like most bluegrass (and the vast amount of folk), there is an element of duality- carefree good-time music carrying stories of fighting oppression and hardships – ‘Do Wrong Right’ is an absolute barnburner, grabbing the attention of every person in the venue and not letting go until the bitter end. On paper, a bluegrass outfit sandwiched between two hard-edged punk bands sounds like a strange proposition, but in practice it is sublime.
The lights fade as Sinead O’ Connor’s rendition of ‘The Foggy Dew’ eerily cascades from the speakers, before a solitary bagpipe blares out ‘Scotland The Brave’ and the band appear, smashing straight through ‘Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye’ and ‘The Boys Are Back’ – the group are a flurry of energy, dual vocalists Ken Casey and Al Barr are almost impossible to keep track of as they cover every last inch of stage, often stepping out into the crowd, riling the audience up and conducting their singing. Dropkick Murphys have become iconic in their welding of traditional Celtic melodies and instruments with punk’s intensity and showmanship. The songs they sing are the music of their families, their upbringing and their communities- the solidarity of the blue-collar carving out their personal American Dream, defiance against those who wish to oppress or exploit. The sense of community is obvious with the sheer amount of sing-alongs with this mentality in mind – ‘The Gang’s All Here’, ‘Don’t Tear Us Apart’ and the joyous ‘State Of Massachusetts’ ring out through the crowd, at times almost louder than the band.
Dropkick Murphys’ roots show through with two songs in particular- both are revitalised, energised, rough-and-ready versions of ‘The Fields Of Athenry’ and ‘The Irish Rover’- the latter managing to be faster than the famous Pogues/Dubliners cover, but somehow far more coherent. These two songs have been adapted time and time again over the years, with Dropkick Murphy’s versions filled with a fire rarely seen elsewhere. The pride they show is not only in their past, but also their present- the band’s hometown and home state are referenced several times in song, and they have forged a connection with local sporting teams- the previously mentioned ‘State Of Massachusetts’ and ‘Time To Go’, which was written for the Boston Bruins ice hockey team (as a Vancouver Canucks fan, I can’t really condone this one at all. Sorry guys- the 2011 Stanley Cup finals and aftermath is still a sore spot.)- Dropkick Murphys are a collective with a real, living sense of pride in themselves, what they stand for, who they are, the people and places around them.
There is some intimacy despite the boisterousness, some romance hidden under the drinking songs and camaraderie. ‘Rose Tattoo’ has Casey and Barr yet again playing the roles of conductor for the audience, guiding the very-near-capacity crowd through the hard-edged ballad as the show reaches its climax – the unmistakable pipe-and-drum intro to ‘Shipping Out To Boston’ (Dropkick’s most famous song, arguably the definitive example of Celtic Punk as a subgenre)- again, the band are barely audible over the audience, who by this point have become untethered completely, turning the entire floor into a sprawling pit of bodies. From here, the stage opens up as a sea of crowd surfers are pulled onto the stage as Dropkicks lurch into a fun, volatile singalong of AC/DC’s ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’ – again, showing the genuine connection between the band and its community, to be equal with their audience, to reciprocate the love shown to them. This is a party, everyone is welcome.
*- seriously, I could pepper this section with reference and quotes from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but I’m going to stop myself before it gets out of hand. One and done is all we get today.
Dropkick Murphys performed at Manchester Academy on Thursday 25th April 2019. Words and photos by Liam Moody.