Amplifier’s turned off as Massachusetts rockers breathe fire into Guthrie’s lyrics, strikingly relevant for such times as these.
For well over twenty years Dropkick Murphys have unapologetically delivered their brand of American Celtic Punk Rock supplying a stream of blue collared anthems for the working class of the twenty first century. It therefore takes little stretch of the imagination to envisage their collaboration with the original socialist poet of the American Dust-bowl, Woody Guthrie, or that it would be such a perfect fit. Plans for such a collaboration had been percolating between the band and Guthrie’s daughter, Nora for over a decade, as she detected a kindred spirit connecting her fathers lyrics to the music of Dropkick Murphys’, but it took the temporary departure of longtime band member Al Baar attending to his ailing mother to present the perfect opportunity for this side project to go ahead. With the assistance of longtime producer, Ted Hutt the band recorded the album at the historic Church Studio in Tulsa founded by Leon Russell and just a few minutes from Woody’s birthplace with Nora and her daughter Anna Canoni very much a part of the album, curating Woody’s lyrics from which the band would create the ten songs that make up, ‘This Machine Still Kills fascists’.
The album opens with, ‘Two 6’s Upside Down’, a forlorn gamblers lament full of remorse that immediately sets the tone with aggressively strummed acoustic guitars, driving bass, and energetic vocals building to an almost tribal chant through the chorus. Subtlety is not a common bedfellow of the band, and in truth its absence here neither detracts or diminishes, but instead allows the urgency of the message to sit front and centre. That ethos continues through the following two tracks, ‘Talking Jukebox’, with its infectious chorus and, ‘Ten Times More’, where frontman and vocalist Ken Casey sings, or should that be shouts, like a drill sergeant softened by some delightful harmonica playing by special guest and former member of the Carolina chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons. Next up is, ‘Never Git Drunk No More’, a drunkard’s promise which features some wonderful vocal contribution from Nikki Lane producing a duet reminiscent of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. It is here the band drift closes to a ballad with an array of instruments such as accordion, tin whistle, banjo, and mandolin creating a delightful wash and depth of colour making this one of the standout tracks on the album.
It is worth remembering at this point that Guthrie’s lyrics are over half a century old, written at a time when going to work was generally seen as something physical and dangerous, where the American Union movement was ascendant and palpable, and the struggle wasn’t just about wrestling power but about regaining dignity for the working man. So it’s both a testament to the genius of Guthrie as it is to the travesty of the times that his words ring with such relevance and sobriety today, to which the band have instinctively connected with and profoundly communicated. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the track, ‘All You Fonies’, which again benefits from the presence of Flemons on harmonica. Here Casey captures the raw anger of Guthrie’s militant union anthem as he sings, “We fought like hell to get here, so you fight like hell to keep what we shed blood to earn”, as if his very life depended on it. This track is followed by the sublime, ‘The Last One’, where Flemons once more excels with the harmonica intro before Casey and Evan Felker from the Turnpike Troubadours seamlessly swap lines topped off with the special appearance from Woody’s grandson Cole Quest on Dobro guitar and backing vocals.
Of course this album is not the first time Guthrie’s unheard lyrics have been brought to life, as Billy Bragg and Wilco combined to produce the hugely successful, ‘Mermaid Avenue’, at the end of the last century, again at Nora’s request. Nor is this the first time that Dropkick Murphys have been linked to Guthrie work, having recorded, ‘Gonna Be A Blackout’, back in 2003, and, ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston’ in 2005, both receiving their trademark full throttle treatment. That they chose to unplug for this project reveals a sense of reverence and responsibility as well an awareness of the challenge of marrying the music to the lyrics that would do Woody proud. The result is a slightly broader palette that never drifts too far from familiar territory, feeling both, on the money, if somewhat predictable, and at the same time leaving a sense of missed opportunity about the album. The truth is the tracks that benefit from the greater range of musical instrumentation with more subtlety and dare we say bravery tend to better carry their message, proving that the whisper can indeed at times be louder than the roar.
The albums piece de resistance is saved for the final track, ‘Dig A Hole’, which finds the bands performance wrapped around Woody’s rare Smithsonian Folksway recording with Casey essentially dueting with the great man, creating a spine tingling performance that sounds like it was all recorded in one take, complete with some fine Dobro playing from Quest. Simply one of the standout moments of 2022, that whets the appetite for more. Which is just as well as this project has produced enough material for a volume 2, due to be released sometime in 2023. In the meantime it would be no stretch of the imagination to consider this side project as one of the bands finest achievement to date.
To summarise let’s leave the final words to Nora Guthrie. “Today things need to be said loud and clear. No time for subtleties, no time for whispered words or guarded statements. When you need a megaphone to say what you mean, and mean what you say”, Who do you call? Well Dropkick Murphys of course.