“We know that we’re just a buncha schmucks that can’t play for shit and sure as hell can’t sing, but for some reason, you guys show up and make this work.” That’s Ken “Reverend” Casey’s tearjerking speech to the crowd midway through the Dropkick Murphys’ astounding new live album. And that’s the Murphys in a nutshell. To this band, the audience — expansive, devout, joyous — is always central to the music, and there’s no sentimentality or mendacity about it. Tireless gigging and principled, literal anthem-writing have turned the band into a precious national resource, a voice of solidarity and opposition that unites rather than divides, and always fills the clubs. I don’t care if the patriotic snooze-tune rags drone on about Bruce Springsteen or Alan Jackson, I still insist that the Dropkick Murphys — Guinness, bagpipes and all — are the most preternaturally American band making music today. They’re patriotic, fierce, committed, strident, playful, drunk, loud, and powerful, and they don’t gloss over their unflinching commitment to working people. Including cops and bouncers.
Thus it was that workers, drunks, sisters, fools, metalheads, and skinheads crowded into Boston’s Avalon Ballroom for three sold-out nights in a row last March, to see the best St. Patrick’s Day celebration this great nation has to offer. Live on St. Patrick’s Day is the distillation of those three great shows, and it’s a physically exhausting and essential document from start to finish.
Life is short; art is long. Live albums lie somewhere in the middle. Usually they just suck, a document for fans and not much more. But sometimes pop music works best when you can hear an audience, and from Live at the Apollo to KISS Alive! to Live Bullet to Land Speed Record to Totale’s Turns you can see how rock’n’roll history has been enriched by documents of the edge-of-anarchy blue sparks that unite performer and audience. When you remove studio-comfort things like second-guessing and audio-airbrushing, you get an artist surviving on their own merits, working and entertaining without a safety net. What would “Turn the Page” be without an audibly silent, rapt crowd digging Bob Seger’s ace new tune? Who would give a shit about that arty punk single “Fiery Jack” if it weren’t for the sloppy sound of Mark E. Smith tossing a vocal grenade into a half-cocked crowd? Live on St. Patrick’s Day fits into this grand tradition of brilliant live albums. Audience and band are interchangeable, and you can taste the beer and the sweat. The guitar crunch blisters, the mosh pit churns, and the spine tingles. And if anything you should buy it for the sticker on the cover: “74 minutes of blue-collar music for a blue-collar price”.
So what’s it sound like? It begins as an epic, with the Boston Police Gaelic Column Pipes and Drums playing a reel that explodes into “For Boston”. Enough to bring a tear to the eye. (And I should pause to note that this may be the first instance in rock history where enthusiastic police officers are playing for a punk audience.) The sound is loud and clear, with all the dirt and anarchy intact. Throughout, the audience often sings along with a fully-abandoned precision drunkenness that crushes all the speculation that this sort of fierce populism is the source of goose-stepping authoritarianism. All the studio albums are represented here, and the Murphys even reach way back in the catalog to their 1996 debut Do or Die for a pint-flying-in-the-air rendition of “Boys on the Docks” (“united we stand / divided we fall”: even more necessary now for workers on the Pacific coast), a bright-kerosene singalong of “Finnegan’s Wake”, and the wondrous closer “Skinhead on the MBTA” (here called “Bloody Pig Pile”).
My favorite bits — evoking tender memories of my own shredded larynx and wet armpits shoved against my face — are “Rocky Road to Dublin”, “The Gauntlet”, “Which Side Are You On?” (a definitive cover), “Good Rats”, “Gang’s All Here”, and “Upstarts & Broken Hearts”. You won’t stop blubbering after you hear the onstage marriage proposal that precedes the unstoppable “Forever” (“I may never be rich, but I know we’re always gonna be happy together. Now there’s one question left I have to ask you . . . “). And a special highlight is an impressive new tune, “John Law”, about a working cop who’s job is just “protecting our sorry asses”. Could this be the first genuinely pro-cop hardcore tune in music history? Casey specifically dedicates it to cops who “don’t abuse their power”, but even with that qualifier its an extraordinary new development in the Murphys commitment to workers with shit jobs everywhere. Then listen twice to the thrashy version of CCR’s “Fortunate Son”: dig where their anger is directed, and how the righteous audience howls and chants “it ain’t me!” throughout. Anger quickly turns to fun as they play some Boston Bruins vids and rip through “Nutty”, the Kim-Fowley-penned instrumental soundtrack to a puck slapped against the net.
The encores include Gang Green and Standells covers that top things off with a bit of local pride and besotted joy. Though I’ve heard a skank cover of “Alcohol” once or twice in the past, the thrashy ethanol that melts the amps here will echo in your memory. And “Dirty Water”! This Boston theme song has been used and abused countless times since 1966, but I think the Murphys do a fine job of revitalizing it and shoving it into the future. Al Barr’s abrasive singing echoes and rivals the snarling original, and he finally reclaims the song for Boston (after all, the Standells were an L.A. band with an ex-Mouseketeer on drums!). Hardcore was a revolution, but the Murphys are all about the revolutionary continuity, rather than the marketing-begotten “change” in music history. (Remember: it was Minor Threat who recorded another memorable Standells cover with “Good Guys Don’t Wear White”, and that was 20-odd years ago!) I think it’s from this sense of generational commitment and continuity that Casey can dedicate the Murphys rendition of “Amazing Grace” to his grandparents, sitting in the balcony as the pit below pogoes into the future . . .