Dropkick Murphys reminds LA their music is timeless
My dad, Shane, and I go to a lot of shows and work together as a team to do reviews here at Top Shelf Music. We have seen some of the biggest performers in the world and countless new bands in dimly lit clubs that barely fit 50 people. Some shows are fun, some shows are great, some shows make you roll your eyes, and some shows just plain suck, but once in a great while, a show comes along that is not only fun, enjoyable, or even great, but it is inspiring and a must-see. Everything simply works together flawlessly, from the opening acts to the closing moments, and leaves you wanting more… it leaves you feeling like you are walking on air and inspired.
This was exactly what the Dropkick Murphys’ current acoustic tour in support of their stellar new album This Machine Still Kills Fascists left us with. What’s that? An acoustic Dropkick Murphys’ concert, you say? Yes, it was a brilliant acoustic show at the gorgeous Orpheum Theater in downtown LA that was filled with songs from the new album and brilliantly adapted versions of DKM classics. The entire evening, from start to finish, wove themes that evoked the spirit of Woody Guthrie (the focus of the entire new album) and his voice, song, and prose about the struggles of the working man and common folk alike. It was a night filled with incredible music and stories; beautiful, emotional, and evocative visuals; and a true sense of connection, community, and empowerment. From the start to the finish, there was a general theme that worked beautifully. It was the theme that “This Machine (music) STILL Kills Fascists” and the problems didn’t end when Woodie Guthrie talked about them in his songs, but sadly, they continue to this day. For every step we took towards progress, they made us take two steps back and we must carry on Guthrie’s legacy by continuing to fight fascism and oppression, and for equality in the world. We have to keep fighting “not once, not twice, but 10 times more” until the work is finally finished… I think this feeling of unending struggle was a palpable theme, but so was the hope in unity and fighting back, which was a common presence in the music, the crowd, and the performance that night. Everyone walked out the show with a gigantic smile on their faces and expressed how much they loved the evening!
The night started out with Jesse Ahern — a brilliant solo artist from Quincy, Massachusetts.
Ahern brought a passionate and soulful set that ran the gamut of emotions, including heartache, loss, and love. Just one man, his guitar, and his harmonica, and a whole lot of presence that truly resonated with the crowd. Ahern’s gravelly voice belted out some moving folk/country/Americana tunes about blue-collar working life, class struggle, and family — all things that fit in perfectly with the Woody Guthrie themes of the night. He had country singer Jaime Wyatt, the second opening act, join him for a beautiful and moving duet on his song “Older I Get”.
Ahern had entertaining interactions with the crowd who really responded to him. He joked with the audience, especially those from the Boston area, and was not afraid of a little banter when someone piped up between songs. He even gave away one of his albums to one lucky audience member. I really loved his interaction with the crowd. Ahern sang an entire set of new songs from an album he plans on releasing in 2023, each of them reminiscent of so many greats before him like Jennings, Cash, and Springsteen, along with a little punk rock attitude. He wrapped his set up with the song “Logging Miles” (Woody Guthrie of “Hard Travelin'”, “Going Down the Road”, and “This Land is Your Land”).
It was the perfect ending for a truly enjoyable set.
It’s not often my dad or I are impressed with an opening act, but Ahern was great, and we even listened to some of his music on the way home. His album Heartache and Love is fantastic. We now have Jesse on our must-see list when he comes to town and are looking forward to the release of his new album in 2023. His musical stylings, lyrics, storytelling, and personality were a perfect fit with both the second act, Jaime Wyatt, and Dropkick Murphys to follow.
Before the show even opened, my dad and I sat on a couch in the lobby, admiring the beautiful old theater, its architecture, and its decor. They simply don’t make them like this anymore. As my dad was putting together all his camera gear in prep for the gig, a nice couple sat next to us and started up a conversation. It turns out they were friends of the family of the second act, Jaime Wyatt. They told us all about Wyatt, her stylings, and even about some of the colorful history that she shares during her set. They described her style of music being that of “old traditional country acts, like Waylon Jennings”. Now neither my dad or I are huge country fans, especially of newer pop-country and bro-country, but old-school country…? Okay, interest peaked. Of course, whenever an artist’s friends and family tell you how great an act is, you politely smile and hope for the best. Just ask my dad about how brilliant and bound for super stardom my band Insomnia is! LOL! But, that nice couple was not wrong.
Jaime Wyatt is not only a great traditional country singer, she is also a great performer! She is the real deal.
Wyatt took the stage dressed in a traditional country suit and cowboy hat, acoustic and harmonica in hand, paired up with her guitar player, Wyatt Lowe. The duo brought a free-spirited outlaw country vibe and sang songs with a traditional old-school country sound, yet it was Wyatt’s bluesy vocal stylings that really put it over the top. During the set, she had several personal interactions with the crowd. Before one song, she talked about her time living in LA, working with Shooter Jennings, and raising a little hell. Wyatt stated that she (like so many old-school country musicians) did a little hard time. She told of her tale of battling addiction and thinking what a great idea it was to rob her drug dealer… because who is going to bust her for that? The audience laughed as she told the story and then applauded her when she discussed her sobriety and how her experiences really helped direct her art. Wyatt’s songs focus on life, “its messiness… good times and bad, triumph and trouble, dreaming and desperation”, but always just on livin’.
Following her set, as the lights went out, the classic stylings of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” came on and the stage lit up, spotlighting a shrine to Guthrie that included a famous portrait of him, candles, two large statues of the Virgin Mary, and an acoustic guitar in front of the makeshift altar that housed the band’s piano or organ. The guitar, emblazoned with “This Machine Still Kills Fascists”, in an homage to both Guthrie’s famous guitar and the new DKM album.
It was both a moving and beautiful site; it was an absolute tribute to Guthrie, as was the entire night thus far.
As the song ended, DKM emerged to a roar from the crowd and took to the stage to the driving drumbeats of “Ten Times More”. As you may recall from our review of the album, this was my dad’s favorite song. DKM performed it live as good as it was on the album. Had there been room for a pit, my dad would have been in it, for sure. That song was immediately followed by the first single from the album, “Two Sixes Upside Down”. Frontman Ken Casey took a few minutes following the opening songs to express his gratitude to the crowd for showing up and supporting a different kind of DKM show. Casey expressed that this was the first tour where they played in seated theaters and where there were no mosh pits (though, if you were at Punk in the Park 2022 on November 6th, Casey was thrilled to have a show with a pit).
Casey then talked a little bit about the album and how it came about. He spoke passionately (as he is known to do) about his positions and feelings about the state of country and how the workers are treated, which was a perfect parallel to the songs they sing containing Guthrie’s words. He asked the crowd how many people were seeing their first DKM show that night, which brought on a significantly larger applause than we expected. Casey talked about the influence for this album and how Guthrie was anti-fascist and adamantly opposed the ideology in his words and songs. Casey expressed dismay and sadness in seeing fascism on the rise around the world again, especially in countries that historically have fought so hard against it. Casey said that this was most appallingly true about the U.S. He then pulled back and told the audience that if this concept and his sentiments were offensive to anyone, that they should go take that up with their therapist. This brought an enormous cheer from the crowd! Casey reminded the audience, acoustic or not, “This album, this show, and this band is still punk!”
He then called for everyone to throw their middle fingers in the air and the band broke into a sick acoustic version of the song of the same name.
The entire show was a mixture of both songs from the new album, which they played in its entirety (and it sounded sublime), and several of their classic DKM songs. However, even those DKM songs were done acoustically! A few songs in, Casey talked about the workers of the country and it being Election Night in America. He hoped for an outcome that would find workers being more supported moving forward. He then introduced “Worker’s Song”, which, in that moment, took on an even more impactful and profound feeling. About halfway through the set, Casey invited opener Jaime Wyatt out to join the band in “Never Git Drunk No More”. While singer Nikki Lane recorded the duet on the album, Wyatt’s voice and persona were a more than perfect fit. Wyatt’s bluesy voice gave the song emotional tones that sent chills and it worked with her story of addiction and recovery, as well. While Casey had encouraged the crowd from the beginning that this show was meant to be a singalong type event, he coached the audience on singing the call-back verse on the song “All You Fonies”. The crowd really got into this: the voices were loud and fists, hands, and middle fingers pumped along with the beat.
At this point in the show, Casey thanked all of the DKM fans for their love and support over the years. He talked about how many fans have been with them since the band got their start, because of a $30 bet. He was impressed by how many young fans were at the show who weren’t even born during the band’s first several years (hey, that’s me!). Casey then dedicated the hit song “Rose Tattoo” to us youngsters in the crowd. The audience really got behind this song and there were a lot of people dancing in front of their seats. Man, did I wish there was room for a pit! As the raucous acoustic version came to a close, Casey struck a somber tone and talked about how DKM supported the vets. They did not just give lip service to supporting our troops, but they actively engaged in supporting them. He told the story of a soldier who died in battle and whose last wish was to have the DKM version of the iconic Irish song “Fields of Athenry” played at his funeral. Casey said the soldier’s widow sent them a letter expressing her late husband’s wishes and the band immediately responded. They not only agreed to play the song at his funeral, but they recorded a special version of the song and made only two copies of it — one they gave to the widow and the second was placed in the coffin with the soldier. Casey went on to explain how the church refused to let them in to play the song, because it was not a “church approved song”, to which Casey expounded “don’t even get me started on that bullshit!” before saying they stood outside that church and played that song on the pipes louder than they had ever played before and the entire congregation stood in the doorway watching in tears. They then played that version of the song live for the first time in a long time, according to Casey. It was a truly moving story and the version of the song was powerful and tear-inducing.
From there, Casey said they would close out the night with three DKM classic punk tunes, which brought a loud cheer from the crowd. The first song up was, I kid you not, a full-on country swing version of the song that started it all, “Barroom Hero”.
Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would hear such an iconic hype punk song stripped down as an acoustic country song, but I am here to tell, as God as my witness, it was freaking genius!
When the song concluded, it brought one of the loudest cheers of the night. Casey then took a moment to talk about Guthrie once again and how the Guthrie family had taken them in and allowed them to carry the torch Woody had lit nearly a hundred years ago. Casey spoke about the working man and overcoming the troubles we all face, but doing it together. He said, “I wrote this one for my grandfather. This is ‘Boys on the Docks’.” This is such a great song and the lyrics give a hint as to why Casey is so drawn towards Guthrie. The song contains a chorus that says “united we stand, divided we fall, together we are what we can’t be alone” — a sentiment shared by Guthrie countless times and an overarching theme on the latest DKM album. At the close of the song, the band took a bow, said goodnight, and left the stage.
Moments later, they reemerged from the darkened side stage and said they had a couple of more Guthrie tunes to sing. First up was the massive hit, “Shipping Up to Boston”, which is, in fact, a cover of a Woody Guthrie song! While they played it acoustically, they rocked it like normal and the place went nuts. The final Guthrie song of the night was my favorite from the album, “Dig a Hole”. While the inclusion of Guthrie singing on the album for this track is pure genius, Casey and the boys did a brilliant version live — a true highlight of the night for me. The final song of the night had come. Casey took one more moment to talk about unity, commonality, and coming together through music, and to reach out to each other… literally. He directed the crowd to look to the person to their right and left, introduce themselves if they did not know each other, shake hands, and then join arm-in-arm and sing along with a country version of “Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced”! The crowd followed along: entire rows of strangers entwined arm-in-arm, swaying and singing at the top of their lungs. For a few moments, all pretense was gone; it was a true moment of unity and solidarity, which was the entire point of the show, the new album, and the entire night.
The show really strengthened my ideas about the album and even enlightened me into some of the deeper meanings and intentions of DKM songs.
I feel that Casey truly relates to Guthrie for several reasons. First, they both write, sing, and talk about the lives and experiences of common people and the working man, and fighting against the powers that be. Secondly, while the meanings and messages of the music may be obvious to the people who wrote it, they could easily fall on deaf ears and be interpreted as other things, or just be seen as completely meaningless (see people asking, “Why does DKM have to get all political?”). Guthrie’s work was subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. One only needs to look at the censored lyrics of “This Land is Your Land”: this song — oft cited as a patriotic song about loving the good ol’ U.S. of A. — is, in reality, a protest song against the establishment and reminding the huddled masses this land was, in fact, supposed to be for all of us, not just the rich. Most people are unaware of the censored lyrics; in fact, a simple Google search for the song will not find them. The powerful missing lyrics call for skepticism from the masses through the words, “In the shadow of the steeple, I saw my people // By the relief office, I seen my people // As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking // Is this land made for you and me?”
Casey’s messages are often misinterpreted in the same way. People hear the surface-level stories, but ignore the details and meanings behind the words. I always thought that DKM songs were celebratory and drinking music. But that night, I found out that the entire band was sober and the songs that seemed to me as drinking anthems, that romanticized getting blackout drunk, were meant to serve as a warning. During the show, Casey expressed that it was frustrating to have some of his words misinterpreted as drinking and partying songs, as opposed to cautionary tales of the dangers of lifestyle which can swallow you up and spit you out. It was a powerful moment in the show and a transformative one for me. I always wrote them off as simple lighthearted party band, and now, I have new and deeper appreciation for them. It is abundantly clear that Casey deeply relates to and takes inspiration from Guthrie’s work and now, I want revisit the entire DKM catalog and listen for Guthrie’s voice and inspiration.
Another cool element of the show, whether it was intentional or as deep as I see it, was the sounds and messages of the opening acts.
Jesse Ahern’s working man folk music and Jaime Wyatt’s outlaw country vibe were the perfect blend to open for this special DKM show. For me, the entire concert could be boiled down to a simple mathematical formula: Ahern plus Wyatt equals Dropkick Murphys to the power of Guthrie A+W=(DKM)^G. The somewhat cynical and pissed-off feelings in Ahern’s songs, along with the sadness and resilience in the face of sadness from Wyatt, are both present in the work and spirit of Guthrie and DKM. Wyatt really exemplifies this spirit of overcoming hardship and her stories of robbing her heroin dealer show this. “I tried not to have any filter with these songs,” Wyatt says about her open-book approach to writing. “Because, I’ll be honest — it feels like I’m gonna die if I don’t tell people how I feel and who I am.” She pauses and lets out a slight laugh. “It sounds so dramatic, but that’s the truth.” Her stories are a perfect demonstration of this idea: overcoming hardship and being honest and forthcoming. Casey really accomplishes this too by really baring his soul during the concert; he lets the audience know how he is really feeling. This is shown in the way he expresses his feelings on sobriety, togetherness, and the unspoken expression of his relationship with Guthrie.
Throughout the show, the total denial of rules and institutions is an ever-present theme. It appears in Guthrie writing about there being nothing on the other side of the “no trespassing” sign and the idea that the only rules that exist are the ones that we accept to be true. It appears in Ahern who, by himself, commands an entire theater of people and carries more energy than an orchestra, defying the idea that you need multiple musicians to have a great performance. It appears in Wyatt, whose story defies the polished and safe country music so commonly heard today, and who shows that life is fucking messy. It’s okay for it to be that way and it’s okay to suffer, to fight that suffering, and to overcome it. And finally, it appears in Dropkick Murphys, who decided to write an acoustic album using Woodie Guthrie lyrics to the chagrin of some of their fanbase. They chose to not write a typical Celtic punk album full of “drinking anthems”, but rather, they strived to do more. All these artists expressed themselves truly and fully through their music, their ideologies, and most importantly, through this show.
The pain, the angst, the generational trauma, but just as equally, the drive, the resilience, and the will to keep going is THE American spirit. That’s what the show really was.
This show, the album, and the openers were all a real embodiment of the American spirit that would have made Guthrie smile. And again, to any naysayers, to anyone who claims that DKM has lost its edge and is no longer ‘punk’, think long and hard about what it means to be punk. Breaking the rules and conventions and doing what they want to do is as punk as it gets. It did not matter if the music was better fitted for a mosh pit or a honky-tonk, it just worked and beautifully so. Honestly, some punk bands should take a page or two out of this folk/country show. There are a few dates left on this amazing acoustic tour and you should run, not walk, to experience it.
Photography by Shane Pase; Recap by Ian Pase