Story and Photos: Brian Schmidt
I arrived at the Holland Performing Arts Center not really knowing what I was getting into. Being moderately versed in the world of punk rock, I knew that the Dropkick Murphys were a modern punk band that musically infused Boston-Irish folk into the genre. They’re pretty famous for their radio hits “Shipping Up to Boston,” “Rose Tattoo,” and “Tessie,” and have garnered a significant cult following over their decades of releases. They were playing an all-acoustic set at an entirely seated venue, which is pretty crazy for a band whose punk rock roots run so deep.
Self-proclaimed Working-class Troubadour and Boston native Jesse Ahern was up first, sporting a guitar, a harmonica, and Bob Segar-esque vocals. Jesse was the best representation of how the night would play out, mixing blues, folk, rock, and country, with themes and stories surrounding the working class, the troubles of the everyday people, the emotional and mental tolls that plague our class, and removing divisional class boundaries. So like outlaw country stuff that is often lost on modern country as a genre.
In this episode of “Umm, Actually,” we learn that many of your favorite old school country/folk heroes were pro union, pro civil rights, and anti-authoritarian/anti-fascist. Anti-fascist, hrmm… Sounds familiar. Almost as if you were to remove the last few letters…
Stick with me though, as that's as preachy as I get. There's a lot of non-partisan stuff here most people can agree on. Amongst Ahern’s setlist were songs like “I Drive a Truck”, a song about the emotional toll of being a truck driver, being away from your family for so long, “Highway of Life,” about chasing a dream, sometimes at the cost of having to say goodbye, and my favorite track “Back Against the Wall,” a song about being taken advantage of by the billionaire class, wherein Wyatt preaches, “I’m no Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, I’m no fool,” breaking arbitrary barriers that separate us, claiming those in charge “took your benefits away and even took your Medicaid,” and shouting “we should take it all away and make you work for less than minimum F***ing wage, for F***ing it up for all the rest of us,” towards the billionaires who continue to make record breaking profits off the backs of our labor while closing doors behind them, ruining the country for the rest of us.
Other memorable moments of his set were some of his in-between song musings. “I’m famous for playing out of tune,” he proclaimed, following it up with “been out of tune my whole GD life.” He also started a song with “If nobody told you ‘I love you’ today, I love you and there is nothing you can do about it,” which was so incredibly wholesome and hilarious at the same time. I really enjoy aggressive support as a comedic concept and it feels good to hear someone loves you even at your potential behest. Another moment was when he brought on Jaime Wyatt, the next performer up after him to duet “The Older I Get the Less I Know,” a song about the perils of age, love lost, and losing pieces of yourself along the way. It was a sweet and somber moment that resonated with me and a large chunk of the audience, who had arms around their partners, with heads gingerly placed upon each other's shoulders while they watched the two perform.
Check out Ahern’s Segar-like crooning at jesseahern.com
Up next was Jaime Wyatt, who was the most traditionally country in the show. Wyatt sported a ten-gallon hat with an embroidered button down, cowboy boots, and an acoustic guitar, which is a great representative of her straight off the Grand Ole Opry sound, complete with accompanying slide guitar player who “just purchased that thing yesterday in a little shop in Tulsa.”
Wyatt performed songs like “Giving Back the Best of Me,” a song about getting over her drug addiction. She had prefaced that song with a story about how she had done time in prison after robbing her heroin dealer, where she kicked her addiction. She also played “Rattlesnake Girl” and “Neon Cross,” both off her latest album produced by son on the famous Waylon Jennings, Shooter Jennings, which pulls from a wide variety of genres while remaining faithful to country. I especially like “Neon Cross,” which has quite a bit of Indie-pop sprinkled throughout, at points feeling like an Adele track.
Some notable moments during her set were when she gave praise to her guitar player Andrew who had literally pulled over to save a family from a burning car earlier that day. “I know he would never see himself as such, but he is a real hero. Not many people would pull over and take the time to help.” The audience really liked this, as there was a standing ovation for the man, with some fans shouting “Let’s go ANDREW!” Wyatt ended her set with a cover of Folk Rock singer, and Sludge Metal band Acid Bath’s front man, Dax Riggs’ “Demon Tied to a Chair in My Brain.” This is such an interesting choice given how far Riggs typically is from country as a genre, but the song, which leans more folk than rock, fits snuggly into the genre and Wyatt gives it a bit of a makeover in line with Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt.” It was honestly a great song to end on.
Check out the self-proclaimed Queer Queen of outlaw country’s music at jaimewyatt.com
Last but not least was the big cheese, or cream cheese. There was a huge set change after Wyatt, where the techs removed the large curtain backdrop to reveal that the Holland had been turned into a ginormous punk rock cathedral, complete with a statue of Mother Mary with beads and a baseball bat, an organ clad with the Dropkick Murphys logo, and the Holy Son himself Woody Guthrie.
Dropkick is currently touring their latest album, which in all honesty is more of a history project. This Machine Still Kills Fascists is a collaboration with Guthrie’s daughter Nora, who invited the band to go through Guthrie’s archives. The album, aptly named after the Guthrie slogan written on his guitars, “This Machine Kills Fascists,” contains songs written by the band with entirely unused Guthrie lyrics found in the archives. While Postmortem Guthrie does a large portion of the work, the band did the heavy lifting having to interpret the lyrics and intent of the song and write appropriate accompaniment. This is technically not the first time the band has used unused Guthrie lyrics. Their smash hit “Shipping Up to Boston” took lyrics and inspiration from a few incomplete lines off of a scrap of paper in the Guthrie archives, so this is a sort of continuation from that idea, but with full intent of writing the songs in the style of Guthrie. It’s a super interesting concept that works well with Dropkick's sound, especially when performed acoustically.
Guthrie’s contribution to country, American folk music, and American history itself is immeasurable, as Guthrie wrote hundreds of songs for common folk, and was a huge proponent for communist/socialist reform (I know, icky words, get them off the screen), Labor Unions, and anti-fascism, including these themes into his music. For context, a large chunk of his works were written during the 1930s, home of the Great Depression, a period of historic wealth inequality, where we saw the union movement start to make strides in gaining workers’ rights, as well as a certain war pertaining to certain Nazi aggressors and their quest for installing a world government built on white supremacy, the destruction of jews, LGBTQ+, and anyone who isn’t a lily-white Christian. Guthrie's songs often acted as protests to fuel both the labor union movement and the push for America to join the Allies in World War II, in the fight against fascism.
Notable Guthrie tracks include “Tear These Fascists Down,” “I’m Gonna Join That One Big Union,” and literally “This Land is Your Land,” which bears such an incredible historical significance that it is woven into the American folk vernacular alongside “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America,” and “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee),” although several versus critical of the income inequalities in America have been dropped completely. Which is just about the most American thing that could have happened to the song.
Sorry for the history lesson, but it’s kind of important to understand why this show is so political, and where the Dropkick Murphys are coming from.
Vocalist Ken Casey, who is filling in full-time on vocals for longtime front man Al Barr while he is on hiatus taking care of his mother, had a ton of stories to tell on stage, which combined with all of the Guthrie talk, made the show feel intimate, like you were sitting down with an old father figure as they pass along sacred truths and nuggets of wisdom. And speaking of sitting, there was not a soul seated at this seated venue. The whole of the crowd made the conscious decision to stand as if at a traditional punk show, perhaps not quite knowing what the tone was going to be. Maybe playing a seated venue was a mistake on Dropkick’s part, however I’m not so sure this wasn’t an isolated incident. They did play for a good 2 hours or so though, so I’m sure a portion of the audience appreciated the seats.
In keeping with the theme Dropkick played about a 60/40 split between their Guthrie material, and acoustic versions of traditional Murphy's tunes, with most traditional tracks being accompanied with a story. They played deep cut “Fields of Athenry,” prefaced with a story about a soldier named Sergeant Farrara, who had been a Dropkick fan. He had been deployed to a particularly dangerous area and told his mom that if he hadn’t made it back that he wanted Dropkick to play “Fields of Athenry” to be played at his funeral. When the band was informed of his passing, they recorded a slower more intimate version of the track and placed a copy of the recording in the hero’s casket. They also mentioned that they were not allowed to play the song in the church, so they played just outside on the steps leading to the front doors. Casey punctuated this story with, “Some people point the finger at us calling us liberals and snowflakes. They might talk but they don’t f***ing walk! We have always supported working class armed forces and will continue to do so.”
Another particularly sweet moment was when they played “Rose Tattoo” for a family in the front row who had lost their son Jimmy at the age of ten to cancer. Dropkick Murphys had been Jimmy’s favorite band and they dedicated the song to him stating “He is here in our hearts.” I hope that someone gets Jimmy’s name tattooed on a rose. That little guy deserves to be preserved in ink.
Of the Guthrie tunes, some particular standouts were, “Never Get Drunk No More,” bringing Jaime Wyatt on stage to sing alongside Casey, “All You Fonies,” a pro union track that had the crowd singing “All you fonies bound to lose, bound to lose,” and “Dig a Hole,” Which features actual vocals recorded from Guthrie taken from the archives. The track was pretty brazenly anti-Nazi, with Guthrie address Mr. Hitler himself, asking “Hitler, Mr. Hitler what are you gonna do?” proclaiming, “you’ve declared war on Uncle Sam and bit off more than you can chew.” The major section of the piece is the chorus which repeated, “dig a hole, dig a hole in the meadow. Dig a hole in the cold, cold ground. Dig a hole, dig a hole in the meadow. We’re gonna lay you fascists down.” The track is the closer on the album and certainly leaves an impression that is almost a call to action against the current rise of fascism and pro fascist leaders both world-wide and in the states.
Another track that stood out was “We Shall Overcome,” which is a song of great historical significance, having been used as a protest song during the Union Movement, as well as having been adopted by the Civil Rights Movement. This is a song that the band had recorded a punk heavy version of back in the day and they recently had the pleasure to cover the track with a Ukrainian Band to support the Ukrainian war efforts. The band had asked Dropkick to do guest vocals for it in Ukrainian, which is pretty rad.
Other notable highlights were when the band played classic tracks “Boys on The Docks,” and of course “Shipping Up to Boston,” which both got particularly rowdy responses from the crowd, which made a few of the valets tense up. The band ended on a high note playing “Kiss Me, I’m #!@’faced,” which caused the audience to bring out their flashlights and lighters, swaying back and forth with arms around each other. It was really sweaty… I mean sweet and brought out a huge sense of camaraderie in the audience.
Overall Dropkick and friends highlighted a lot of common perils that we as Americans have been struggling with for a long time, be it corporations forcing workers to work 80 hours a week with little pay, the rising tides of fascist regimes that threaten to destroy democracy, or everyday perils like a car fire on the side of the road. The message is simple, we shall overcome these threats by banding together and supporting each other.
I appreciate that Dropkick Murphys are a band that is not afraid to walk the walk while putting their contributions on full display. If they didn’t walk the walk, a lot of their messages would potentially come off as preachy, but the way in which the band relays their message through storytelling highlights the importance of supporting our underprivileged communities in a way that relates to the common folk.
The Seats emptied as the spirit of Woody Guthrie strummed on his guitar, singing a song of hope for a brighter future. “This land was made- and could still be made- for you and me.”
You can pick up a copy of This Machine Still Kills Fascists at dropkickmurphys.com
Big thanks to Dropkick Murphys and the Holland Center for photo access!
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