There’s always an abundance of Celtic concerts around St. Patrick’s Day. The pandemic’s pause of in-person shows created a unique opportunity for Celtic punk/rock fans. Previously it was difficult to see more than a handful of bands during St. Patrick’s Week due to geographic, time, and monetary considerations. During the pandemic era, the shows are conveniently available with the click of a mouse—and, with one significant exception, for free and at any time! This confluence of Celtic concerts drove home the point that Celtic punk is the most widespread type of ethnic punk and that it’s evolved to have its own recognizable styles and tropes. Behold St. Patrick’s Week streams from eight countries on three continents!
The most commercially successful Celtic punk band brought their A game. When the pandemic started in March 2020, a lot of Celtic bands didn’t have enough time to come up with a plan B. Slate explained that the pandemic “couldn’t have arrived at a worse time” for the “Celtic punk industry: their entire year is structured around St. Patrick’s Day, when the country’s demand for Celtic punk hits its annual peak.” March 17, 2020, was the start of the pandemic era for me, as I worked from my office for the last time for months and watched Boston’s Dropkick Murphys stage a virtual concert without a live audience. Playing air banjo along to “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” in my kitchen, I felt like everything was going to be OK—even for just a moment—and that was a powerful feeling.
On March 17, 2021, the Dropkick Murphys played their third livestream of the pandemic, with top-notch production. When they opened with the riveting “The Lonesome Boatman” and “Hang ‘Em High,” I lost myself to the music and launched a one-man mosh pit in front of the TV. My muscle memory kicked in, and I knew how to react. I recalled the energy of letting loose in the front row against the barricade upon seeing the Dropkick Murphys at the Paramount in 2013. While a livestream isn’t as loud or immersive, after a year of pent-up emotions, it felt cathartic!
A Latin American festival showed how far Celtic punk has come. The inaugural “Festival St. Patrick—Latinoamérica Folk Punk” was a showcase for a half-dozen groups playing short sets, and I was blown away by the bands from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and—by special invitation—Spain. It’s hard to imagine that more than a couple of these bands would have joined together for a St. Patrick’s Day gig if not for a climate where livestreams are the new norm. The festival’s YouTube page boasted:
Within the framework of St. Patrick’s celebrations worldwide, several Latin American bands have come together for a unique celebration on this side of the world. … Each of the bands are cultists of sounds from the old continent, inspired by Celtic sounds, Irish, polkas, and even Russian folklore, but they share punk rock as the foundation of their musical offerings. We will see how instruments not very common for rock bands, such as tin whistles, accordions, fiddles, and banjos, will be played.
There were gritty punk rock bands with traditional instruments on top, and there was a more folkie folk-punk band. They weren’t exclusively Celtic punk acts, but St. Patrick’s Week was the appropriate celebration for punk rock mixed with traditional folk instruments. The punk triad of electric guitar, bass, and drums was complemented by acoustic guitar, tin whistle, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, accordion, keyboard, and trumpet. The groups sung and spoke in Spanish, Portuguese, and English. The Latin American bands played in rehearsal studios, and Pilgrim’s from Spain played amidst hay in a barn. The “Buenos Aires Punk Rock Celta” band Aires Bastardos played the only traditional Irish song, “Tell Me Ma.”
The festival’s host, La Fiesta del Diablo, had the smoothest sound for fusing together traditional Celtic music with punk rock. The electric fiddle and accordion were in sync with the rest of the band. La Festa del Diablo were the peppiest act of the day, which paired well with the raspy vocals.
Seeing six bands—far removed from Ireland and the US—draw on familiar Celtic punk signatures proved they’ve become entrenched in Celtic punk culture. This was apparent not just musically but also sartorially. Numerous musicians wore vests à la Bob Schmidt of Flogging Molly and Bones of the Tossers, plaid shirts à la Nathen Maxwell of Flogging Molly and Tobin Bawinkel of Flatfoot 56, and scally caps à la Al Barr of the Dropkick Murphys and Dennis Casey of Flogging Molly.
A stellar live band did their best to capture their live spirit through the screen. I saw Virginia Celtic rock/punk band the Fighting Jamesons at Shamrockfest in 2016, and their energy wowed me. I’ve enjoyed their 2019 live album A Moment in California, especially “Drunken Sailor,” which was the song I listened to most on Spotify that year. When “Drunken Sailor” kicked in on St. Patrick’s Day, I instinctively threw up my devil’s horns, and I had no choice but to play air guitar during the solo. During “Tell Me Ma,” the organic reaction was air drums. Click here to watch.
The genre’s progenitors were part of the celebration. Minnesota’s The Langer’s Ball played a set of Pogues covers. The Langer’s Ball only had two members—one on vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmonica and the other on accordion and pennywhistle—but the Pogues’ music has such innate frenzy that a song like “Poor Paddy” worked well for a folk-punk duo. With the arrangements stripped down, I realized that the melody in the Pogues’ “A Rainy Night in Soho” was apparently the inspiration for the Dropkick Murphys’ “Forever”; this was more blatant than in the Pogues’ version. Click here to watch.
I finally got to see a band that had long eluded me. I have been listening to Vancouver’s the Real McKenzies for about two decades but had never seen them live. The Scottish punk group were the only band to play several days before the Irish saint’s day, and seeing them rock out with bagpipes kicked off my music marathon magnificently. I only own their 2001 album, Loch’d & Loaded, but I was pleased with how many of their songs I knew. The band members wore kilts, reminiscent of this highlight from their biography: “Must we mention that kilts are customarily worn without benefit of undergarments and that the McKenzies are proud supporters of that tradition? There were only two rules in the band, but they were important: no heroin and no underwear.”
The heaviest band of the lot played acoustic. Chicago quintet Flatfoot 56 played an acoustic set in front of their merch supply. They might be a raucous punk rock band, but their folk sensibilities shined through, particularly in “I’ll Fly Away.” The stream was plagued by technical difficulties, proving that even though Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys had slick production, punk rock is still a DIY enterprise.
The Celtic band I’ve seen the most were the only group that sold tickets, and they were worth $17.75. Flogging Molly played from Dublin, the first time they’d done so on St. Patrick’s Day. Front man Dave King and his wife, fiddler Bridget Regan, reside in Ireland, enabling an authentic holiday experience. Songs from Flogging Molly’s first two albums, Swagger (2000) and Drunken Lullabies (2002), dominated the set. They gave the paying crowd of more than 15,000 what they wanted, reinforcing why it makes sense for music fans to pay for livestreams even when there are free alternatives.
The production and sound quality were terrific. This was especially true for the mix of traditional instruments with the vocals, electric guitar, bass, and drums. During “The Hand of John L. Sullivan,” the banjo sounded more prominent in the mix than usual, which was a nice touch. That was also the case for the mix of lead vocals with backup vocals, especially bassist Nathen Maxwell’s. The listener could hear distinct voices singing cleanly and in harmony rather than a gestalt of gang vocals. Maxwell and accordionist Matt Hensley as well as guitarist Dennis Casey and banjoist Spencer Swain usually share vocal microphones, but they didn’t this time, likely because of coronavirus precautions.
Having seen Flogging Molly in concert about sixteen times and listened to their live albums even more, I couldn’t help but be critical about the contrast with a typical show. The instrumental introduction to the set opener, “The Likes of You Again,” was abbreviated, as if the transition into the show didn’t matter. Without interacting with the crowd, King’s vocal delivery was sometimes lacking. Around the time he sang, “I’m ugly and you know it,” in “Selfish Man,” he typically would have been shouting the lines at full blast. He nonchalantly sighed, “I’m going home,” before the bridge in “Tobacco Island.” The audience participation parts were also glaringly absent. There was no “Whoa!” chant during the bridge of “Devil’s Dance Floor.” What’s “If I Ever Leave This World Alive” without a sing-along? Devastatingly, the opening banjo solo of “Drunken Lullabies” felt weak and dispassionate without a venue full of people stomping in unison. When that happened at Forest Hills Stadium in 2018, it felt like the bleachers might collapse!
There was so much I appreciated about seeing Flogging Molly in this moment. “Float” had a resonant message of trying to be positive and stay afloat in the face of adversity, without losing sight of the adversity. Their epic closing song, “Black Friday Rule,” remains their pièce de résistance. Its guitar solo still sends chills down my spine. Its coda is as good as it gets as an effervescent celebration of life. And from the fiddle solo all the way through the coda? It speaks to my soul!
When the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly emerged in the late 1990s, they were often compared to the Pogues. Since then, many Celtic punk acts have been likened to the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. Celtic punk has grown so much that while those two bands remain the titans, looking at the genre through those dual lenses doesn’t do justice to the full glory of the Celtic punk rainbow!