Chances are that during the high holy day of Saint Patrick you are going to run into a Plastic Paddy; he or she might be an O’Brien or a Fitzgerald and still think that the real Irish eat corned beef (it’s more of an Irish-American thing), drink green beer (hell no), and listen to U2 (ugh). This means you are not at McGreevy’s in Boston’s Back Bay. The bar is a bastion of the Boston Irish where you can get the perfect pour of Guinness, cheer on the Red Sox, and punch up The Pogues on the jukebox. And what makes the bar special—or, rather, who makes it special—is Dropkick Murphys vocalist and bassist Ken Casey, who co-owns the pub. Since the band’s inception, the Murphys have been putting a modern spin on the music of their forefathers from the Emerald Isle. Fusing traditional banjo, tin whistle, and bagpipes with distorted guitars and a punk snarl, the Dropkick Murphys have created a unique sound that couldn’t come from anywhere else but Irish Boston.
One would be hard-pressed to find a band that is more ingrained in the culture of its hometown. In 2004, when the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, the Murphys were there to provide the anthem. When Martin Scorsese was looking for the perfect song to open The Departed was there really any choice other than “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”? And when The Fighter recently hit theaters, it did so with the Murphys’ “Warrior’s Code,” the band’s ballad about local pugilist Micky Ward. It’s impossible to think about Boston without thinking of the Irish punk sounds of the Murphys, and vice versa.
Having so much of the band’s identity tied to Boston gives the guys an opportunity to have some fun with it while they are on tour. “We’d go down to New York and I’d roll out onstage with a ‘Yankees Suck’ shirt, and bottles would fly at me,” Casey says with a laugh. The Murphys have never been bashful about their sports fandom (“Time to Go,” off of their 2003 album Blackout, is a love letter to the Boston Bruins), but it wasn’t until 2004 that they cemented their place in the Boston sports scene with a recording of “Tessie.” In 1903, the Royal Rooters fan club sang the original version of the song to cheer on the Sox (back when they were the Boston Americans) to pennants through Boston’s World Series victories with Babe Ruth in the 1910s. The Rooters were led by Michael T. McGreevy (who owned the bar Casey renamed in his honor) and broke up when Ruth left town. The Murphys hoped to remake “Tessie” and break the Curse of the Bambino. Lead singer Al Barr remembers the first time he listened to it: “It’s this barbershop quartet’s song about this lady’s parrot. Our jaws dropped and we’re like, How the fuck are we going to do something with this? This is horrible. They’re going to stone us to death.”
After a great deal of reworking, they debuted the song at Fenway Park before a game against the Yankees. It ended up becoming a good omen, as the Sox went on to win the World Series that year. “If things were different and the Sox had lost, ‘Tessie’ would have been a long-forgotten thing, and we would have been railroaded out of town,” Casey jokes.
Boston sports also played a significant role in Casey’s first ink, a tattoo of the Celtics leprechaun. “When I was 14 the Celtics were at the height of the Larry Bird era,” Casey says. “Every kid was getting that logo as a tattoo. A few days after I got it I’m playing basketball down at the park with the older kids, shirt off, thinking I’m cool as hell. My mother had got word and she comes creeping up on me in front of 40 kids, grabs me by the hair, and starts beating the crap out of me—the horror.” That’s punk.
This month marks the 11th year that the Murphys are staying at home to perform on the most Irish of days. “We do a residency in Boston for St. Patty’s,” explains Barr. “It’s amazing that it’s become this kind of pilgrimage for people. They come from all over the country for the show, so it’s pretty cool. There’s a lot going on in Boston that week—you got the parade in Southie, everybody is green and drunk, and our show.” These always sold-out shows have become legendary for their spectacle. Usually the band is joined onstage by Irish step dancers and additional pipers for at least a few songs. It’s definitely a homecoming for the band. “It’s just ridiculous,” Casey says. “When you come from big families like we do and you really were born and raised here, you feel like half the people at a Boston show are people you actually know.”
In addition to celebrating St. Patty’s Day, the band will also be celebrating the release of their seventh studio album, Going Out in Style, this month. Their sound has been constantly evolving over their 15 years, and they are taking an ambitious approach with this release. The album tells the tale of the fictional Cornelius Larkin. It was an idea that occurred to Casey after seeing an old man being prepared for burial in his New England Patriots sweatshirt while visiting a friend’s funeral home. “The song ‘Going Out in Style’ is about a wake,” Casey says. “It’s nice to explore by going backward and telling the story of a guy’s whole life. I was basically kneeling over that guy, God rest his soul, in his Pats jersey and thought that this is a cool idea.”
To add some depth to the character of Larkin, the band turned to their friend and author Michael MacDonald to write an obituary for the liner notes. The Murphys also collaborated with one of the true heavyweights of rock, Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Peg O’ My Heart.” “Here’s a guy who really represents Americana and has been an icon for so long, and he’s singing on our record,” Barr marvels. “It’s crazy.”
From their beginning as a four-piece playing matinee shows for 500 kids to the headliners at a week’s worth of shows at the House of Blues last year, the Murphys have stayed true to their roots. As they tour around the country with the new album, don’t be surprised to hear their Boston punk rendition of “The Irish Rover”; the last track on their album, it’s a traditional Irish folk song about a shipwrecked traveler far from home.