Saranac Brewery in Utica closed out its summer concert series with a bang Wednesday night. Dropkick Murphys’ 20th anniversary tour rolled into Varick Street, leaving a mass of sweaty and delirious flat-capped and kilted fans in its wake. The band last visited Utica in this very location on Sept. 20, 2012, and as Fred Matt mentioned when introducing the band, were the first to grace the Saranac stage in 2007.
The Celtic punk band has made a steady climb into mass consciousness since its formation in Quincy, MA in 1996. In 2004 the band re-imagined the song, “Tessie,” a song that helped push the Boston Red Sox to the first ever World Series title in 1903. The Dropkick Murphys’ version of the song is now one of three that is played at Fenway Park following each Red Sox victory.
The Murphys wear their love of hometown and the working man/woman proudly on their collective sleeves. This was made ever more present on this night when, prior to performing “Bastards on Parade” midway through the set, the band was presented with the first and only ever “You Give a Shit” Award by members of the local IBEW/CWA unit for their support of the union during the recent Verizon strike.
The show began with a rousing sing-along of the traditional Irish ballad “The Foggy Dew” and quickly escalated from there. “Out of Our Heads,” with the chant of “Here we go!” revving up the crowd, set the pace for the next hour and a half.
The Murphys faithful were given a bit of a scare early on during “Famous for Nothing,” when vocalist Al Barr took one step too many at the front of the stage and almost took a header into the pit. Fortunately, he recovered quickly and those not paying attention to the stage probably didn’t even notice the brief misstep.The band employs dual lead singers. Al Barr provides the gravelly yet melodic Oi! style vocals while band founder Ken Casey lends his slightly gentler voice to the trad-Irish and rousing pub rockers when taking leads. In addition to the boisterous front men, the band also employs some top notch musicians in drummer Matt Kelly, guitarist James Lynch and multi-instrumentalists Tim Brennan and Jeff DaRosa. Brennan is imposing and animated. Whether he’s ripping chords on lead guitar or squeezing out notes on the accordion, his tall frame looms large onstage.
It isn’t often a mosh pit forms at Saranac, but when Dropkick Murphys are in town, you can be sure one does. The pit formed early and was active throughout the night, especially when the band broke into the first song they ever recorded, “Barroom Hero.”Throughout the show, the band recognized the dedication of its fans. Casey invited one enthusiastic audience member to the stage to take his job for a song of his choice. The fan traveled from Raleigh, NC to see the band and Casey recognized him as one of their most die hard fans as he allowed him to take the lead on “Devil’s Brigade.” Following the performance, Casey said of the aspiring vocalist, “What he lacks in melody, he makes up for in enthusiasm.” A big hug between them sealed the arrangement and the fan headed back to the crowd.
The Murphys’ affinity for boxing is not a secret. Their 2005 album The Warrior’s Code was dedicated to Lowell, MA light welterweight fighter “Irish” Mickey Ward. Ward is most famous for his three epic battles versus Arturo Gatti in the early 2000s, fights that are still discussed in boxing circles today. Casey has even formed his own boxing promotion company, Murphys Boxing, promoting Danny O’Connor and Spike O’Sullivan.
The International Boxing Hall of Fame is located in Canastota, a quick drive up I-90 from Utica. Barr recognized the museum’s Executive Director Ed Brophy, who was one of the night’s attendees, as the band broke into the titular song from their Mickey Ward-inspired album to a roar from the crowd.
The biggest surprise of the night was when the opening notes of the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” began. Some with puzzled faces looked around for recognition of the song, while others of older vintage immediately recognized the Boston new wavers’ song. This one wasn’t too well-received by those in attendance, at least not those who were the most vocal the majority of the night, but it was a nice surprise to hear it mixed into the setlist.
The set ended with the high energy songs the band has made its trademark beginning with “Rose Tattoo,” a Murphys original that could easily be mistaken for a trad-Irish song. Originally released on the band’s 2013 Signed and Sealed in Blood album, the band re-recorded it with Bruce Springsteen for the For Boston Charity EP to benefit the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. A ripping version of “Going Out in Style,” a song that will be played at many a Murphys fans’ funeral in future years, followed.Starting with the most famous banjo notes to open a song, the unmistakable “The State of Massachusetts” whipped up the crowd and the mosh pit and merged into the traditional “The Irish Rover” to close the set.
While encores are a given these days, the crowd still found it advantageous to encourage the band to return to the stage with the “Let’s go Murphys!” chant heard at each show. The band returned after a brief rest to Brennan’s accordion intro of the Woody Guthrie penned “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” a song made famous for its inclusion in Martin Scorsese’s Irish mob movie The Departed and a song that has become synonymous with Boston itself.
Continuing the fan-love, Casey invited all the ladies in the house to join the boys onstage for their last call classic, “Kiss Me, I’m Shitfaced.” Suddenly the Saranac stage was packed with fans bouncing and singing along to Casey’s ode to the beer goggles.
Casey then chose one lucky female fan to sing the parts of the modern day Murphys’ version of the Pogues classic “Fairytale of New York.” While the guest vocalist required some assistance with the lyrics from Casey, the fan held her own surprisingly well, much to the delight of those in attendance.
The night, and Saranac’s summer concert series, ended with a cover of the Sam Cooke soul classic “Having a Party” and a party it was, and there was no better way to finish off the summer. The crowd was left wanting more, exactly what Dropkick Murphys were striving for.
Dropkick Murphys Setlist: Out of Our Heads, The Boys Are Back, Famous for Nothing, The Gang’s All Here, Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya, Sunshine Highway, Sunday Hardcore Matinee, Bastards on Parade, Worker’s Song, As One, Cruel, Barroom Hero, Devil’s Brigade, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory (Johnny Thunders cover), Memories Remain, The Warrior’s Code, The Gauntlet, Just What I Needed (the Cars cover), Rose Tattoo, Going Out in Style, The State of Massachusetts, The Irish Rover (traditional)
Encore: I’m Shipping Up to Boston, Kiss Me, I’m Shitfaced, The Dirty Glass, Having a Party (Sam Cooke cover)