Punks, Skins, Hardcore kids, Psychos…All were in attendance as the American Pride Tour rolled through Chicago on Friday night, October 19th. Heading up to the venue – the Vic – I noticed the familiar faces of Chicago’s finest skins and punks that normally roll out for the DKM, but what amazed me was the sheer variety of the crowd. Not that it should have. America’s finest bands in three categories were in town. Tiger Army, the west coast’s premiere “Psychobilly/Punk/Rock’N’Roll” three piece, NYHC hardcore legends, the mighty Sick Of It All and the ever popular trailblazers of American Paddycore/Mickrock, the Dropkick Murphys.
As show time approached, the greasers adjusted their quiffs, the skins looked hard and psychos flooded the front. You could almost hear the switchblades gleaming and the pomade drying as Tiger Army scampered up on stage first. Being a fan of all things psycho, I readied myself. The Army played a helluva, albeit short set. This is a group that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. Playing such hits as “Nocturnal” and the Army anthem “Never Die”. Nick 13’s crooning and the hard-driving, haunting, howling sounds from the band left the psychos dying for more. Newer numbers like “The Power Of Moonlight” and “FTW” were already audience favorites, as the crowd wrecked along to every word. If you’re not familiar with Tiger Army, imagine a gang of 50’s rockabillies cutting an album with the grit of the Clash, and lyrics influenced by old horror movies and Glenn Danzig. Maybe Gene Vincent meets the Misfits meets East Bay Hardcore? Stand-up bass player Geoff Kresge was amazing – quite a showman he was – all energy, pacing back and forth like, well, a caged tiger (yeah, yeah…bad, bad pun.) Nick 13 kept the crowd moving, and all in all, I wish they would’ve played for another 30 minutes, as their material is definitely strong enough to warrant it, and they kept the crowd involved the whole time. American roots music updated with a punk rock flair and horror show style. Hell, I even saw some skins smiling. I haven’t had this much fun with greasers since Fonzie donned water skis and jumped a shark all those years ago.
Testosterone levels were running high, and the change was aching to be picked up, as New York’s Sick Of It All followed. If you’ve seen SOIA, then no explanation of what followed is necessary. Motherfucking Mayhem. As Ken Casey noted, these guys ain’t no openers – there were TWO headliners for tonight’s show. Lou Koller made sure that everyone took care of each other as the band blasted through hit after fucking hit. I have always been a fan of the bands older material, (although I do also dig their newer stuff) and was pleased to hear them represented by “Clobberin’ Time” “GI Joe Head Stomp” and “Us Vs. Them” among others – it was a virtual hit parade. SOIA also pulled out all the stops on newer ball-busters like “Call to Arms” and cuts from their latest “Hello Pricks” and “Disco Sucks, Fuck You.” Band-wise, Pete Koller is a sight to behold: total fucking energy, never stops moving throughout the whole set. Near mid-set, Lou asked everyone to play the “Braveheart” game, re-enacting the scene from said film where Wallace and the Scots charge the Irish portion of the English-ruled Army (the Irish were the expendable ones, after all) and rather than commence combat, they stopped and embraced. So, the game went: rather than run headlong into one another and ‘battle’, stop and embrace. It was positivity and unity like this that the crowd (and country) needed to have thrust their way. All this from fuckin’ Yankee fans, I couldn’t believe it… (just kidding, I’m just bitter that my fucking “normally-worthless- yet-this-year-first-place” Cubs blew it in the last 3 weeks of the season this year. They say rooting for lovable losers is honorable, but Jesus Christ, can we catch a break sometime soon? More opinions on that later.) While America and New York may have been wounded, Sick Of It All are on the scene making sure that we kick start ourselves, brush off the ashes and head right back into the good fight. Cheers, gentlemen.
After SOIA left the stage, the crowd was treated to an unannounced surprise. The Chicago Police Emerald Society Pipe and Drums band took the stage. The Chi-town pipers/drummers set consisted of patriotic American tunes like “God Bless America” and I swear at one point I heard strains of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as well. It was amazing to see the band’s lead drummer, well into his fifties, playing almost punk-rock speed as the crowd spurred him on with chants of “faster, faster.” When I talked to him post-show about how well he and the band had played, he just smiled and said “Hey, I’m a fan, just like you.”
Being a piper myself, I knew the pipers and drummers were paying a hefty tribute to those lost in NYC on 9/11. They were, in words stolen from the aforementioned film “Braveheart”: saying goodbye in their own way, playing outlawed tunes on outlawed pipes…..Then, they broke into the familiar call to arms of “Scotland the Brave” and I could almost hear Mills Lane’s raspy mantra in the air: Let’s Get It On.
If patriotism, positivity, hard work and guts represents the necessary tools for the old-school American success story, and the results could be personified into a band, that band would be Dropkick Murphys. Ken Casey has created an Irish-American band based in punk rock, Oi! and the American working-class tradition, but one that expanded into so much more. The cliché review of “this band represents American values and the working man….” never rang more true, never sounded less clichéd, as that is exactly what the Murphys are about. Having seen them in their earliest appearances in Chi-town (playing Thurstons with the Business was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen) I can tell you they have been about these messages since day one. In the wake of recent events, I can think of no other band that could heal a cities battered and wounded subculture like the Murphys. As the lights dimmed, the familiar strains of Boston legends DYS “Wolfpack” started over the speakers (and I chuckled as the hardcore crew next to me asked themselves who it was.)
The familiar crowd chant “Let’s Go Murphys” echoed off the cavernous ceiling like a packed Wrigley Field and the band responded – The Murphys took the stage like a band possessed, like men with missions. The usual hit parade was present and old classics like the opener “Do or Die” and “Never Alone” had me front row and fighting off a sea of the mad. My favorite from the new record “Heroes From Our Past” got my boots moving, as did the normal drinking anthems “The Wild Rover” and “Finnegan’s Wake.” As is now tradition, the ladies flooded the stage for “The Spicy McHaggis Jig” (including some particularly well-endowed ladies at that) and Spicy looked slightly bemused by it all, shaking his head and laughing.
Spicy was like a man-at-arms all night, playing his “instrument of war” as if the bands lives REALLY DID depend on him, like Scots Pipers did all those centuries ago. Mark Orrell is a wonder-kid, with Angus Young-style flash on the lead guitar, balanced out by the equally grand James Lynch, who is more like a guitar version of bass player John “The Ox” Entwistle of the Who – all power, no mess, no fuss, just pure impact. I couldn’t hear Ryan Foltz as well as I have in the past, which might’ve had something to do with the fact that I was front row, stage right the whole night. I know from the past, however, the kid’s a talent, playing both mandolin and whistle, both of which are a bugger to play. Matt Kelly, as usual, keeps things moving, and his mix of punk rock/Celtic-style drumming makes him the best in the biz. Al Barr, as most know, is a legend. Barr controls the chaos and winds the crowd up when necessary and brings them back down when needed. He definitely is exercising more vocal control and range with the Murphys than he did with the Bruisers. Ken Casey – well – Ken is the visionary. Thanks to Ken, the world of punk rock is enlightened. While Oi! comparisons don’t really fit musically anymore, the spirit is the same – sounds from the streets created by neighborhood guys who lived it. Giving the laborer a voice. Rallying around the country’s needs. Seeing that patriotism isn’t viewed as a negative. (Anti-Flag anyone?) As a songwriter, Ken is, to me, like a Brendan Behan figure. A working class kid who’s been through a lot and who knows how to string sentences together to evoke emotional responses from his audience. It’s as simple as that. Call-and-response. Big choruses that fit right in at any barroom sing-along. Lyrics that make the old fellas in the neighborhood nod and wink, inhale their smoke, take a pull off their well-worn flask and bask proudly in the glory Casey evokes in his songs. And a wicked bass player to boot. Too bad he’s a Bruins fan. Go `Hawks.
The event offered numerous thoughtful surprises – the band dedicated the old classic “John Law” from the “Tattoos and Scally Caps” 7″ (has it been that long?) to all the policemen and firemen who lost their lives battling the terror that was 9/11. I don’t know if I’ve been happier or more proud to hear a song in my life. “Far Away Coast” packed a similar emotional wallop, in tribute to the soldiers that are defending God’s Country as we speak. The audience themselves came alive and embraced the unity the Dropkicks preached – There were soldiers embraced with skinheads, cops arm-in-arm with punks (yes, it’s true) and greasers and psychos and just regular guys and girls. It was a sight to witness. Ken stopped several times to point out that America needs to remember their forgotten, to honor their fallen – to never forget. He led the crowd in “Amazing Grace” and noted that a portion proceeds from the show are going to the New York Firefighters 9-11 Relief Fund.
When all was said and done, when the last strains of “Skinhead on the MBTA” were no more, the boys thanked the crowd, packed it up and left the stage. No encores. None were needed. This show was about American Pride, not band pride. Point well taken. The Murphys came to us that night like the boys from the old brigade, called back into action when we need them most. They came to town to raise the flag high and raise spirits even higher. Mission accomplished, lads. Slainte. Much thanks to them, Tiger Army and Sick Of It All.
By Sean Holland