By Steve Beard
For the last few years, I’ve gotten hooked on livestreaming the Dropkick Murphys’ St. Patrick’s Day concert. This remains the one redemptive habit I’ve clung to from the pandemic years.
Over the last 25 years, the bagpipe-and-banjo-infused Celtic punk band has built a devoted fanbase in its sweaty moshpit. It played four straight nights to sold-out audiences over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend in their hometown of Boston.
This year’s show was unique for a few reasons. One was the understandable absence of co-lead singer Al Barr due to family-related concerns. Second, the band has been on tour promoting their 2022 album “This Machine Still Kills Fascists” – an acoustic collection of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics performed by the band. (The title is adapted from a famous phrase on Guthrie’s guitar in the 1940s.)
Although they might seem an unlikely odd couple, the legendary folk singer syncs up just fine with a punk band known for championing the working-class. The Guthrie family got hooked up with the Dropkick Murphys twenty years ago. Ironically, their mega-hit, “Shipping Up to Boston,” is taken from Guthrie lyrics.
On St. Patrick’s Day, the band roared through twenty-five songs, much to the sheer delight of the sold-out crowd in the MGM Music Hall at Fenway – and those of us watching via livestream. There was a shout-out to the Guthrie family and Woody’s grandson Cole Quest played dobro guitar. Erin MacKenzie sang a beloved duet of “The Dirty Glass” with Ken Casey. (On the album, alt-country’s Nikki Lane trades ballad verses with Casey on “Never Git Drunk No More” – video HERE).
The third unique feature of this year’s show – utilized throughout the entire current world tour – was the unmistakable visual religious symbolism.
“As the lights dimmed in the City Hall, the sound of ‘Foggy Dew’ performed by Sinéad O’Connor and the Chieftans wafted across the crowd. On the stage, candlelight illuminated the set – crosses, statues of the Virgin Mary, and a selection of skulls and roses – with a table set up to resemble an altar. Were we at a gig or Holy Communion?” asked photojournalist Iam Burn, in his review of the Dropkick Murphys show earlier this year in Newcastle upon Tyne in north east England (XSNoize).
Who could blame him for asking?
In St. Louis, concert reviewer Carrie Zukoski observed: “The stage was filled with candles, a large cross, a statue of Mary, skulls with roses (we guess it’s a symbol of the eternal struggle between good and darkness), and a prominent, framed photo of Woody Guthrie” (Archcity Media).
For those counting, there were were two crucifixes and two statues of the Virgin Mary interspersed across the large stage. The set design was reflective of the Guthrie-inspired album cover depicting an old-school shrine to a departed loved one utilizing sacramentals and other items. It features lit candles, playing cards, billiard balls, a crucifix, prayer cards, a Blessed Mother statue bedecked with a dozen rosaries, handwritten and typed lyric notes, Righteous Brothers 45s, lace, a baseball, as well as dried roses and a skull.
The album cover design is a fitting Irish-Catholic tribute to Guthrie – a man not known for his church attendance but who viewed Jesus Christ as a hero and once sang, “This train don’t carry no gamblers/ Liars, thieves, nor big shot ramblers/ This train is bound for glory, this train.”
In his review for the show in Belfast, Northern Ireland, earlier this year, Darren McVeigh observed, “The stage, bedecked with religious icons of crosses and skulls, provided a juxtaposed backdrop for these hard-core punk rockers” (Metal Planet Music).
The seemingly incongruent divine symbolism was front and center – without overt explanation or apology.
While the band does not make it a point to speak out about their spiritual upbringing, it does occasionally seep through. Reflecting their Irish-American heritage, concert t-shirts often utilize Celtic cross imagery. Furthermore, the band has been known to pull off a fiercely rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace” (HERE, HERE or HERE).
For many years, drummer Matt Kelly has displayed a portrait of G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic literary giant, on his bass drum head (“A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it,” said Chesterton).
An outspoken supporter of blue-collar workers (think Dorothy Day), singer Ken Casey recently accepted a special award from Catholic Charities on behalf of The Claddagh Fund, the charitable foundation of the Dropkick Murphys. The fund raises money for worthy, underfunded non-profits that support the most vulnerable individuals in the Boston area.
There are, of course, many artists with Catholic roots – all expressing their faith differently. A colorful array of performers such as Jack White, Lady Gaga, Dion DiMucci, Aaron Neville, Jon Bon Jovi, Johnny Ramone, members of Los Lobos, Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats, Harry Connick Jr., Gwen Stefani, Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, Lana Del Rey, Winston Marshall (formerly of Mumford and Sons), and Bruce Springsteen were all raised with the Sacraments: Baptism, First Holy Communion, Reconciliation (confession), and Confirmation.
Just as with their Protestant counterparts, each artist has varied levels of engagement with the faith of their childhood. Nevertheless, the influence often plays out later in life.
“My auntie Nora combined gambling on the Irish sweepstakes with teaching me my catechism for my first Holy Communion,” confessed Shane MacGowan, lead singer of The Pogues, thought of as the original Anglo-Irish folk-punk band. “She was a religious maniac. And she liked a drink and she chain-smoked. We used to pray on every horse. And we used to win again and again and again.”
Throughout his legendary and troubled career, MacGowan has struggled with alcohol and drugs. Currently, he is bedeviled by serious health concerns. Nevertheless, several years ago he told The Guardian, “I owe my career entirely to my family and to the way I was brought up. I am very grateful to them and to Christ and His Holy Mother and all the saints. And, of course, I am grateful to Victoria, my muse [and wife]. Without whom I might well be dead by now.”
With a lengthy career under its belt, The Dropkick Murphys most likely won’t be facing any kind of harsh push-back from fans because of the overt religious symbolism – not that it would upend the band’s perspective. From all indications, the band is given tremendous leeway to express themselves however they please as long as they deliver their bare-knuckled music.
“As the stage was getting set up for them someone behind me mentioned that there was a lot of crosses getting set up,” one reviewer by the name of Rizchex wrote of their show in Charlotte, North Carolina. “In addition to all the crosses the stage was dressed with white lace, statues, and lots of candles giving it a church altar theme. I had not seen the Dropkick Murphy’s before so I don’t know if this is standard for them or if they are taking more of the original religious approach to the St. Patrick Day Holiday. It was a different look than most of the punk shows I have gone to, and although I am not religious, I can appreciate the extra effort they put into it.”
Steve Beard is the curator of Thunderstruck. The Dropkick Murphys have a second Guthrie-inspired album being released on May 12 called Okemah Rising. Special thanks to Iam Burn for permission to utilize his photos.