Dropkick Murphys cover the Boss's "Badlands"
We're esconced high in the House of Blues third balcony -- the dreaded VIP area -- and, this being the opening night of the Dropkick Murphys homestand, a reporter could excused for feeling a bit like a wedding crasher. Everyone at a Murphys show seems to know each other -- to have known each other for a very long time -- and to have sworn allegiance to an elusive code that you havent figured out yet.
PHOTOS: Dropkick Murphys | House of Blue, Boston, MA | March 12, 2009
The Murphys are populists of a sort, but they are also connisseurs. Over the PA, a carefully curated playlist lures you in -- is that really Belgian punks the Kids' "This Is Rock N Roll"? Let it never be said that the Murphys don't know their shit. About the HOB VIP -- it's a gorgeous room, the walls filled not with murals but with (pause for dramatic effect) fabric tapestries. The chairs in the lower balcony, directly overseeing the stage, are soft-backed and swiveling. Further up, the quality deteriorates from lavish to merely luxurious stadium seating. The only drawback being that, further up, the sightlines deny you a view of the floor -- the floor at a Dropkicks show being at least half the entertainment. The luxuries that make it a beautiful room also make it a terrible rock club. And this is the twisted genius of the House of Blues: first-floor, pretty good straight-up general admission rock club. Third floor: club med. Milling about upstairs are the requisite Scally-capped, tattooed, construction-working guys, the luckier ones accompanied by some the most beautiful tattooed blue-collar punk girls known to man. The silver-fox brigade -- rugged and fit, neighborhood guys -- congregate in the reserved seats, flirting with the pretty young waitresses in black motorcycle vests who've come to take their drink orders. (One racks one's brain for a precedent -- a punk rock show where you could get drinks brought to your seat? Ah, there it is -- Sex Pistols reunion at the Pavilion. Opening band: Dropkick Murphys.) There are grandparents in the front row, and in the wings are fathers with their young sons, and coming out of the bathroom, trailing down the concrete back stairs, a line of preteen girls in dance-academy sequins(more on them later), amist in hairspray and parent-applied makeup. To judge by their merchandising, their popularity, and the position they occupy in Boston's civic identity, the Dropkicks are in essence the city's fifth major professional sports team -- with the added bonus that they always win. They are greeted with a hero's welcome even before they present themselves publicly. At the House of Blues, services commence with a traditional Irish hymn (piped in) and a kilted bagpipe player (live) and then, with room to spare and Celtic church-window tapestries unfurled behind them, they arrive onstage blaring a three-chord fanfare. The crowd tight enough in front for a rolling, stadium-like pogo. Crowd surfers helpfully chuted off to the sides and delivered back into the throng -- not summarily kicked to the curb. Good form.Now out comes the wireless electric banjo for "State of Massachusetts," a song about a lady who gets her children removed by protective services. With a slight change of venue it could be retitled "Sympathy for the Octomom." There have been so many bands who've traveled some version of the Murphys path, but perhaps none whose shout-alongs -- modeled discreetly after the Irish tenor tradition, filtered through hardcore's bark -- have struck such an exactly regal tone. Looking down from above, there is something Roman about this coliseum of rock -- the swarm below, the privileged onlookers croweded over the balcony rails. You have to briefly shove off your reservations about the implications of this upper/lower sorting. Not that I'm jumping down into Gen Admission with the plebes, mind you. Waitress?"Citizen CIA." Massive. Blurry. Hardcore, perfectly.And your eye finds stage left: yes, the Murphys have now progressed to the point that they've requisitioned a piano with their name stencilled on it, in antique lettering, as if it had been pulled out of a 1930's saloon. Maybe they can retire it to McGreevy's when the tour's over.Here's master of ceremonies Ken Casey announcing -- in case you hadn't read the notices at the door, as you were being frisked and wanded -- that the band is using these shows to record of a new live CD and DVD. Has it been nine years since "Live at the Middle East?" How is this possible?"Here's a song that we haven't had much use for lately," says Casey, "but it's nice to be able to put it back in the set list and mean it. This one's for all the Bruins fans!" A sportsman's cheer goes up for the 44-16-9 Bruins, who were in the midst of bludgeoning Ottowa, 5-3. "Time To Go" is less famous than their Red Sox anthem, "Tessie," which has now become as popular in our time as "Dirty Water" in its era. Oddly, there is no DKM Celtics song. How is this possible?"Sunshine Highway." Spirited, jangly, verging on pop. The pit takes a breather.How well-oiled a machine is Dropkick Murphys? James Lynch turns and his guitar tech is standing with a fresh ax already waiting. Flawless. As rote as the Ramones, and probably three times as much fun. They are playing a classic, "The Gauntlet." In the early oughts it sounded like a provocation to outsiders, but now its chorus -- "Stand up and fight, and I'll stand up with you" -- feels as inclusive as a shamrock shake. On risers, three Irish lasses clutching cellos and violins. The Dropkick Murphys Chamber Orchestra? This is "Fields of Athenry," dedicated by Casey to his grandmother, who I'm pretty sure is sitting a few rows in front of me. With Casey taking the lead, Al Barr takes a breather in the wings among the heavy stacked road cases, wiping his face with a towel. A man never looked lonlier.A minute later he's ducking under a guitar handoff, swweping in front of the bagpiper and stomping, head between his knees, back in the thick of it. There hasn't been a new singer in the Dropkicks since Barr took the reins from Mike McColgan a dozen years ago, but then that's no guarantee of anything, is it?I am recalling the Dropkicks first-ever St. Patrick's Day show -- it took place not in Boston but in St. Marks Place on the Bowery, and they bused two loads of Boston fans in for the occasion. Barr was still new to it then, and fresh out of the Bruisers. He was asked whether it was an easy transition to the Murphys and there was a narrowing of his eyes, and then a perhaps slightly over-earnest declaration of how he'd had to completely relearn how to sing in order to join this band. Behind him, Casey and then-guitarist Rick Barton rolled their eyes and took the piss. You notice that the rest of the Murphys have upgraded their wardrobes (slightly, mind you, but indicative of kids who can afford more than t-shirts). Barr is still washed-out polo shirt, black jeans, Converse. Occasionally, Barr still has the demeanor of a hired gun, a placeholder: Maybe the most successful placeholder in the history of placeholders.I've been reminiscing for a couple of songs. Between the Celtic tapestries are vertical strips of LED strobes: they're glow green, more like traffic -- go, go, go -- than subliminal Irish sympathy. From this vantage, up in the VIP booth, we can see yet another level of VIP: second balcony, lower, but behind the backstage sepatator: the elites. Band girlfriends, even, maybe. Barr, in Lemmy growl: "Howeverybodydointonightalright?" Then normal: "Nine years. Nine years man, pretty good right?"Casey: "Let's have a hand for security, for getting' out of the pit and lettin' you have a good time." There is a jeering hand for security. When the Dropkicks old singer, Mike McColgan, was a rookie in the pressman's union at the Boston Globe (he later became a fireman, and is now, of course, fronting Street Dogs), he knew my father-in-law, a union pressman of the old school. I take their union sympathies as neither contrived nor immaterial. But as they struck up the refrain from "10 Years of Service" -- "Who's gonna save us from the lonely picket line" -- I suddenly realized that this was the first show I've been to at the House of Blues where there weren't picketers out front distributing flyers about the HOB's alleged antipathy towards organized labor. And in the midst of that thought, here come the dancing girls. Eight of them, a flash of stiffly-sewn, sequined patterns of green and pink and aqua -- if Nudie had designed Irish stepdance outfits, they could not have been more sparkly. With their locks in tightly-spun corkscrew curls. Who knew punk rock could be so adorable? Now more dancers, this time even younger. Two of them. Elizabethan children, rosy-cheeked. This, then, is the Murphys: Somebody must've said, in passing, "Maybe we can have Susie's dance recital at that concert hall you're renting for the week, laddie?" And Ken was like, "Sure, Uncle Pat, no problem," and here they are. The Murphys are nothing if not a good, honest family business.In fact, that scenario is only slightly off. The dancers are from Quincy -- I missed the name of the school. Ken: "My daughter goes there, she's gonna be here on Saturday afternoon. I'm nervous!" We are into the guest-stars-and-hits portion of the evening. Liza Graves from Civet comes out for "The Dirty Glass," singing (not quite as lovely) the role previously cast by Kay Hanley and Steph Dougherty. (On my way in, a security guard had reassured me, after I despaired of having missed Civet, "if you can imagine an all-girl Distillers with no talent, that's what it was like.")Spicy McHaggis gets his jig. "Tessie" is sung, loudly and longly. "Kiss Me, I'm Shitfaced" arrives, and you think: all this, and then they steal our women. The House of Blues stage is bigger than even Avalon's, so that when it swells to capacity, the ladies clambering on in all shapes and sizes, you wonder whether there are any left in the building. After the song, they are not ushered back into the audience, but are spirited backstage, from whence perhaps they shall never return. Somewhere, Gene Simmons is smacking himself in the forehead and wondering why he didn't think of it first."Boys on the Docks": still probably their best song. When the lights go down again, my money's on a cover. But certainly not the one they end up playing: Springsteen's "Badlands," as far as I know a new addition to the setlist. And perfect for them, obviously. And better sung than you'd expect. Here's hoping they begin ripping off less Pogues and more Boss. And of course they play the hit. I've decided there are worse songs to have as your city's national anthem than an Irish-punk Woodie Guthrie ballad. Like the hometown team, you don't have to love it in order to feel some joy in rooting for it. It is now less a song than an institution. In fact, you can imagine the Boston Ballet someday commissioning a postmodern jig set to the Murphys' Boston medley just as they played it -- "Shipping Up To Boston," then "Charlie on the MTA," and . . . well, we're in the middle of it now, but I'm going to guess the next song is "Dirty Water."Wrong: Gang Green, "Alcohol." Even better. Over to you, Mikko. And now everyone's climbing onstage, as if they'd been cast for their roles, in green soccer jerseys and t-shirts and track jackets and hoodies. A great green monster shouting and jumping and giving each other the finger. And then the song is over and the lights on before the stage is clear, Frank Sinatra singing them out the door with "My Way." No encore, presumably so that the after-party can get started all the sooner: the smart money is on McGreevy's, flyers for which some enterprising street-teamer has helpfully plastered on every car windshield for blocks.