Ask anyone who’s lived here for a millisecond and they’ll be able to name the two most important holidays on the Bostonian calendar: St. Paddy’s Day and the Fourth of July. With the exception of the Southie Parade, the most raucous event in the city on St. Paddy’s is a dubious honor belonging to the Dropkick Murphys’ annual bash that takes later that night, and often in the days leading up to and following March 17. This year, the Dropkicks had not only their big, green bacchanalia to plan for: they hit Fenway Park last September, and they were asked by the Boston Pops to join them at the Esplanade to celebrate July 4th.
You know, THE July 4th party. The one that’s nationally broadcast and star-studded and packed to the brim with people trying to catch the fireworks as close to the banks of the Charles as they can without actually falling in.
I didn’t know what to think, really. The Esplanade isn’t exactly where you’d expect the Dropkicks to be, especially when you throw formal wear into the mix and Keith Lockhart’s standing up there in a white tux that probably cost as much as my monthly rent and then some. They had worked with the Pops briefly this spring for a special Red Sox Night in which “Tessie” and “Shipping Up To Boston” were performed, and that what was on the docket for 4th of July festivities as well. That being said, the Hatch Shell on the 4th is a bit more of an, erm, unpredictable venue, and there’s tons of stuff that can pop up (and did, more later) that can make or break a show. Still, after graciously agreeing to let me shadow them for a bit before they were to take the stage, I canceled my own July 4th plans and booked it to the Hatch Shell to hang with the Dropkick Murphys and chat with them a bit about what exactly would go down.
What greeted me upon arrival was a lot of hustle and bustle: security was TIGHT and I made the mistake of heading towards the backstage area around the same time as a huge forklift, so that was a bit of awkward standing around as I found myself in the wrong place a handful of times over the course of a minute. Eventually, I found Andy, the Dropkick Murphys’ manager for the event, as he was figuring out some sound stuff with two acoustic guitars and a banjo in tow. A hello and a handshake later and we’re heaving open one HEAVY ASS BRONZE DOOR that leads into the backstage (or technically, understage?) area at the Hatch Shell.
As we shouldered our way past a bunch of official looking people and the tables that had been set up in the middle of the hallway for the members of the Pops to warm up, I started to freak out: This is where everybody hangs out before they go on. Keith Lockhart’s around here somewhere, meditating or practicing his hand gestures or doing whatever conductors do before the symphony takes the stage. Jennifer Hudson’s probably doing scales in her dressing room over there. We then arrived at the Dropkicks’ dressing room, where a handful of the guys and their wives are hanging out on a couple of well-worn couches. James Lynch, one of the guitarists and the one most will recognize as the guy who furiously laps the stage during a Dropkick Murphys live set, and I then duck out to chat about what he and the guys have been up to while he has a cigarette.
“Y’know, we just got back from playing some pretty epic shows,” he says, leaning up against one of the granite walls surrounding the Hatch Shell. It’s approximately 912 degrees out and humid, but James is clad in a rock musician’s touring uniform of ripped jeans, open button down, Wayfarers and a handkerchief wrapped around his head. “The festival scene in Europe is ridiculous. It’s pretty similar to this, but it’s more of a rock and roll thing, obviously. We’re used to seeing this many heads in the crowd at this point, so that’s not really the scary part–it’s more performing with the Pops, because they’re actual musicians! And I’m a guy with a guitar.”
Is it weird, listening to “Tessie” and “Shipping Up To Boston” with about 85 of the best classically trained musicians in the country playing behind them?
“Things come out of it that aren’t there when we play it, you know? We’ve got a lot of dudes in the band,” he laughs, “but there’s a lot of dudes in the Pops. The subtleties they add to the song are unbelievable.”
We head back inside just before the guys file out again for a press conference with Lockhart and Michael Chiklis, who’s in town for the festivities. We come back inside to see that members of the Pops have arrived, and as Keith’s walking towards the stage, I’m able to get one question in: “The Pops and the Dropkick Murphys in one word. Go.” He beams. “AWESOME.” And then he runs up, and Keith Lockhart kicks off the zillionth annual POPS! Goes the Fourth Celebration. Meanwhile, after trying to find a place to stand that’s out of the way of the bassoons and violins and other instruments that I was convinced I’d accidentally bump into and destroy, I find myself next to the staircase leading up to the stage as the guys pull in for a huddle before their set.
After a few words and high-fives, the guys grab their guitars and banjo and make their way up to the stage and the 100,000 audience members or so that’ve gathered over the course of the day on the green in front of the Hatch Shell. Ken Casey dedicates “Tessie” to Somerville Youth Baseball, and after a spirited rendition of the latest anthem to join the Fenway Park canon, the Pops segues into a dark, dramatic intro for the song that catapulted the Dropkick Murphys from loveable local rock ruffians to ambassadors of a Boston sound.
“Shipping Up To Boston,” just like James described, is LOUD. It’s not one of those kinds of loud that make you regret leaving your ear plugs at home, and not the type of reminder that leaves you ruing the many times you stood in front of the speakers at shows when you were young. It’s a full, complete loud, a force that makes use of the manpower and precision of the Pops in a concentrated burst of energy that the Dropkick Murphys use to their utmost advantage.
Just two songs were played with the Pops on the Fourth, but this is as huge a thing for the Dropkick Murphys as it would be for any Boston band that grew up watching Arthur Fiedler or John Williams take the podium before the fireworks. They’ve crossed a major cultural channel by bringing a shade of Boston music the Pops has never explored before to the stage on the Fourth of July, and that was just another milestone to celebrate that night.
Gone Gonzo’s where we go places. And rock out.