Dropkick Murphys, Clutch and Hatebreed Rock Chicago!

In our ever-expanding quest to engage and promote all things geekery, we at the Pullbox are toying with the idea of the occasional music or concert review—so without further ado, here’s our review of Monday night’s Dropkick Murphys show at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom…

So, I lucked out earlier this spring, having scored $20 tickets for the Dropkick Murphys, Clutch, Hatebreed and Amigo the Devil at the Aragon during National Concert Week (which has now become one of my favorite weeks of the year).  Monday night, our long-awaited date with great southern rock and Irish punk (and those other guys) finally arrived, and off to Chi-town pal Randy, his lovely lass Dawn and I drove.

We arrived about midway through Hatebreed’s set (sorry, but good Thai food trumps the opening band of a four-band show, when I haven’t eaten all day!), which was every bit as loud, fast and energized as you’d think; they raged through their 9-song set, name dropping Chicago every chance they got.  I’ll own that I’m not much of a metalcore guy, but these guys were solid—and seemed to be enjoying the hell out of themselves.

This was my second time seeing Clutch, and while the sound was a little sketchy (their entire set sounded a bit muddy—as though there wasn’t enough differentiation from one source to another), they’re a great live band, with energy to spare.  Lead singer Neil Fallon is a consummate showman: the guy was born to sing these songs, and hearing Tim Sult’s guitars, you feel like you’re getting a sonic primer on the history of blues and rock (and yes—this is a very good thing).  Clutch is old-school southern blues-rock, their subject matter typically sardonic self-criticism and humor and broken relationships.  With the occasional psychic warfare and x-ray visions.  You know, the usual. 

Just as when Randy and I saw them open for Primus a couple years ago, there was (based on the volume of Clutch t-shirts we saw) a good-sized contingent of folk there to see them, over the headliners; like the Murphys, they’ve got a strong, dedicated following.  And with good reason—they’re an excellent band.  Their setlist was a retrospective of their entire catalogue, which dates back to the early ‘90’s.  My personal faves were “A Quick Death in Texas” and “Electric Worry.”  Definitely worth seeing if you have the chance, and hopefully they get to headline a tour soon.

For me though, this night was all about the Irish.  And they didn’t disappoint.

From the opening pipes of “Cadence to Arms” and through the raucous, audience-assisted closing bars of “Until the Next Time,” the Dropkick Murphys blistered through their 21-song set, which featured a number of hits, a few recent offerings and a good spatter of deep cuts.  Oh, and an awesome cover of the Cars’ “Just What I Needed,” sung by Al Barr.

The Murphys, if you’re unfamiliar (and more’s the pity to you if you’ve lived this long without them) are a group of pugilistic Boston mates who’ve been playing working class Irish punk since the mid-1990’s.  They employ traditional Celtic instruments including the bagpipes, mandolin, accordion and tin whistle, alongside electric guitars, bass and drum, and the occasional piano.  Their co-lead singers, Ken Casey and Al Barr, are perfect accompaniments—the one, a more traditional Irish male voice, the other a gravelly, smokey punk roar, but make no mistake—they both can and do kick monumental ass.  Most likely, you’ll have heard “Shipping Up to Boston,” which was featured in The Departed, or maybe “Tessie” as the Murphys’ beloved Red Sox won their first World Series in 100 years back in the mid-2000’s.

Whatever the case, this is a band who, however great they sound in a recording studio (and they do sound outstanding), needs to be experienced live to truly appreciate them.  Their shows are first, foremost and last a party: a semi-controlled riot where everyone ends up hugging it out and sharing a drink together afterward.  That’s not to say their music is all fluff—actually, quite the opposite (they addressed, among other things, union and worker’s rights, addiction, child neglect and war trauma in tonight’s set).  They just have that Irish ability to take a dark and dreary tale, and tell it with a laugh and a mischievous twinkle in their eye.

And the whiskey doesn’t hurt.

This is the fourth time I’ve seen the Murphys live, and it was far and away the best.  Each band member (and each instrument they played) had a moment or two at center stage, and each seemed to genuinely be having the time of his life.  Every one of them knocked it out of the park (even if they didn’t play “Tessie,” much to my chagrin).  The performance was tight, every note and every cue nailed, the sound crystal clear.  One song rolled right into the next, without a lot of pontificating or lecture: the Murphys are a heavily political group, supporting a large number of pro-union and workers’ rights causes, but this concert wasn’t the time or the place.  This is a band who gets it—who is to their very core appreciative of what they get to do, and relishes the chance to do it.

And the crowd seemed to know it, too.  Casey and Barr almost didn’t have to sing, or Matt Kelley bang the drums—the audience did it for them.  On every.  Single.  Song.  Most shows, for most bands, you get a few die-hards who know every song the band ever did (even that super-rare B-side that was only released in Japan!), but the bulk can sing along with maybe 2 or 3 tunes, usually during the encore.  At a Murphys show, though, it’s as if everyone in the building was sitting in some bar in Boston, writing the lyrics and the beats with them.  I’m telling you—it’s an experience to behold.

And I’ll tell you this—I’ve been to a lot of concerts, and witnessed some really cool bands.  But none of them have or will top the Murphys for engaging with and truly appreciating their audience.  From Ken Casey’s requisite thank you to the crowd a song or two into every show, for having allowed them to work “the best f@#in’ job in the world!” to his and Al Barr’s repeated journeys onto the show floor, reaching out and high-fiving or fist-bumping every fan they can reach (I got one this time!  Slainte!) and ending with their inviting 50 or so audience members onstage to join them for “Shipping Up to Boston” and “Until the Next Time,” the Murphys aren’t just a rock band playing a show: they are a movement, a community of which you are every bit a member.

Now, attending and enjoying a Dropkick Murphys show comes with a bit of a caveat, and it’s a major one—so listen up.  If you’re of the smaller persuasion physically, have an issue with bodily contact or personal space, and/or really really really don’t like getting beer splashed on you, you’ll want to stand toward the back.  Mosh pits (and yes, the plural is intentional, and accurate)—and I mean real, hard-core, slam-dancing with complete abandon mosh pits, not the skinny-hipster-pogoing-back-and-forth-wanna-be pits—are a given at their shows.  They’ll typically break out toward the front and to either (usually both) sides of the stage, at about the third song in.  The etiquette for such an occasion, if you’re unaware (and this could be its own fascinating sociological study) is well-known and near-universally accepted among participants: all in good fun, participation is (mostly) voluntary, and safety first (or close to it)—guard, protect and aid if someone falls.  Nevertheless, for the uninitiated or unintended, things can get a bit…rough. 

And the beer spills?

Nigh tragic.

So, watch yourself.  We ended up right on the outskirts of a good-sized pit, and got to play the role of boundary maintenance.  Makes for a good workout, trust me.

All told, we had a superlative experience.  Please, if there’s a remote part of you who was always curious but never have, who likes Irish (or any other kind of) punk, or just who enjoys a good time with 5,000 or so of your new best friends, treat yourself the next time the Murphys roll into town. 

Maybe we’ll share a good shoulder check, and a Guinness or two. 

If you’re interested in more information on the Dropkick Murphys, explore their website:  http://www.dropkickmurphys.com/ (and maybe even consider contributing to The Claddagh Fund: http://www.dropkickmurphys.com/claddagh-fund/ ).  For more info on Clutch, check out http://www.pro-rock.com/index.cfm.  If Hatebreed is more your thing, you can find them at https://www.hatebreed.com/.

Original Content by Andy Patch, thePullbox.com

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