Since 1996, the backstage area at the Dropkick Murphys’ annual St. Patrick’s Day shows in Boston has hosted a party just as rowdy as the one that erupts in the audience once the lights go down.
“Our guest list is sometimes as big as the crowd,” says Ken Casey, the band’s bassist and founding member. He chuckles as he describes their typical St. Paddy’s green room scene: “My grandmother just passed, but she was our biggest fan, and she’d be there into her mid-nineties. Young children that I and the band members have — you’d have these generation gaps. All the friends you grew up with. One of the downsides is being in a touring band is that you’re away a lot: you miss a lot of weddings and funerals and functions and get-togethers, and so for us, St. Patrick’s Day is our This Is Your Life a bit when everyone comes to us.”
This year plans have changed due to the global coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent event bans Massachusetts and elsewhere have enacted to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Massachusetts Governor declared a state of emergency on March 10 after a cluster of coronavirus cases linked back to an event held by biotech company BioGen at a Boston hotel.) All six of Dropkick Murphys’ planned events, which were to kick off March 13 with an in-the-round show at Encore Boston, were postponed before Baker announced a ban on gatherings with more than 25 people. Boston’s House of Blues — which stands across the street from Fenway Park, and has hosted them for several years — has shut its doors for the time being. McGreevy’s, the sports bar Casey owns a few blocks away that fans frequent before and after these hometown shows, is closed as well. Instead of Lansdowne Street, the band will head to an undisclosed location in Boston today (March 17), where they’ll perform for a livestreaming audience. For the first time ever, there isn’t a single person on the guest list of Dropkick Murphys St. Patrick’s Day gig.
“We’ve had friends say, ‘Hey bud, I’m gonna pop by and check it out!’ Nah, man — we’re not bringing kids, nothing,” he says, laughing. “We’re not telling anyone where it is so we don’t have my knucklehead buddies pounding on the door.”
Though Casey’s quick with a joke, this is a situation Dropkick Murphys are taking seriously — and one that has already impacted how the next few months will look for Boston’s beloved Celtic rockers, who typically spend 75-100 days on the road. Those holding tickets for the St. Patrick’s Day shows will be able to honor them in September, and the makeup dates will now coincide with the release of their new album, which they plan on previewing on the livestream.
Below, Casey unpacks the tough decisions he and his band mates have made to make over the last few days, how this crisis affects them as musicians and business owners, and why they decided to move forward with their most beloved tradition in spite of the coronavirus. Get info on how to watch the livestream here.
Walk me through your last couple of days. How quickly did this St. Patrick’s Day livestream plan swing into action?
It’s like everything else where it’s changing minute by minute. The days leading up to the St. Patrick’s Day shows when people are asking you “Are the shows still happening?!” and you don’t know — we ultimately pulled the plug before it was a mandatory thing because we felt it was the right thing to do. The first St. Patrick’s Day show was gonna be in the round, with people on four sides of us, and we were rehearsing in this soundstage studio for that because we needed to replicate that stage. The place had full sound equipment, full cameras. I was like, “Wow, this place is awesome — we should do something here someday.” Having just been in there, were like, “We can go in there and do a show!” We were thinking about doing it for our fans who were disappointed, and obviously, with no sports happening], nothing, there’s a lot of outside interest more than there normally would be. That’s fine — if we’re the only thing going on, we’re happy to entertain the people who don’t normally listen as well! It’s something to do, but we’re definitely gearing it more towards the audience that’s disappointed that they can’t come see us.
Given that you canceled before a ban of events with more than 25 people present went into effect in Massachusetts, when did you realize this was a serious situation?
I was paying attention to the news, but then the Governor called. He’s a fan, and he comes to all the shows, and he had called to say he couldn’t come, just because it wasn’t the responsible thing to do. We were like, “Wow this isn’t so much about our shows as it is about the bigger picture.” We think it’s a good idea because of the community spread and not aiding that. Listen: if BioGen can spread it to 70 people when they’re just having lunch and sitting at tables, what is the close contact of a Dropkick Murphys show gonna do if someone has it? That was really the consideration. We also wanted to give the head’s up to the people who are traveling to these shows, and the people who are local who make it a weekend. There’s just a lot of planning on peoples’ parts. I don’t want to pull the plug on people at 5 o’clock on Friday afternoon, you know? We decided to cancel a little early and everything followed suit. It’s changing so fast. I mean, I’m still worried they’re gonna shut down the roads and I won’t be able to get to the livestream! I think that’s probably not gonna happen. If it was at the end of the week I might be concerned about that.
They’ll find you a duck boat, worst case scenario.
There ya go.
Your run of St. Patrick’s Day shows has been one of your fans’ favorite traditions for two decades and counting, but what is it about these concerts that makes them so special for you?
The hometown aspect. This is the first year, ever, that we weren’t ending a tour in Boston. We’ve usually been away, haven’t seen friends and family, and then you come home… On the flipside, you have what I would describe as the superfans of the band, because of social media, a lot of those people have become friendly with each other. The front few rows are these groups of people that we’ve watched over the years as they come to Boston from other parts of the world, and the Boston people host them, and they’ve created these long-standing friendships, and we see that. The shows definitely have a unique flavor because of that.
Are you and the guys doing anything special for this livestream, considering the circumstances?
Well, mainly, we didn’t want to do it like, “Hey, here’s one of our buddies holdin’ an iPhone in our practice space!” (laughs) We’re doing full lights, a full video wall behind us, a full-on production. That combined with the fact that we’re actually gonna play some new songs that no one’s ever heard before, that are unreleased — we typically wouldn’t do that. Nowadays, when you put something out live, well, it’s out — you can’t put it back in until the record comes out. In lieu of the circumstances, we’re going to play three or four songs that no one’s ever heard before. Our bagpiper isn’t here, that’s the only downside: he’s stuck in Florida, so we’re reworking some of the stuff to replace the pipe melodies. That’s part and parcel with what we’re dealing with in this situation. We felt that it was selfish to take him away from his kids and family to say, “Can you get on an airplane right now during a pandemic]?” We’re looking forward to playing new music. We’re gonna turn it up like, ten — turn the lights down in the place so when we walk out, it’s dark. Some shows you can be kind of blinded by the stage lights and the audience is really dark and you can’t see as well. We want to almost close our eyes and pretend there’s an audience there.
When you announced that the House of Blues shows were postponed to September, you also mentioned that you had a new album coming and these would now be album release shows. Is the livestream going serve as an official preview for the album?
We started the process with releasing a two song single last month, and there was supposed to be another one in May, and another sometime in the summer, so we’d be teasing part of the album leading up to September — but who knows if those are gonna happen now at this point, the way things are going. We said, “While we work all that out, let’s just play the goddamn songs.”
You spend a lot of time on the road, and obviously future plans are on hold due to the global pandemic. Is this a worst nightmare scenario in terms of what this means for the Dropkick Murphys on the business side?
Yeah, but it is for everyone. My mother owns a hair salon. Name me a job — unless, I guess, if you’re a work-from-home computer person — where you’re not affected. I could sit here and worry about how I’m gonna pay my mortgage, but I think the rest of the world is, too. You just gotta keep it at a day at a time. It’ll be a nice luxury after all of this if we’re worrying how to pay our bills when it’s over, you know what I mean? The main focus is the task at hand. I would assume and hope that the government will be assisting people who are living week-to-week.
McGreevy’s, the bar and restaurant you own on Boston’s Boylston Street, has also had to adjust in the wake of all this. How has that been to navigate?
We shut down the restaurants before we were told to as well.
In terms of the loss here, will this be a big hit for the band to take financially?
We have] zero insurance. We don’t even carry cancelation insurance on our shows. We’ve been through this a few times before with festivals that were canceled because of hurricanes or storms. The cost of a band of our size, we’d be paying a third of our guarantee for every show for insurance. You gotta roll the dice at that point. Same with the restaurants closing: there’s obviously a loophole for pandemic or bacterial and viral stuff. I haven’t even really tried to think about the financial side because you need to get through the humanity side before you can worry. Like I said, it’ll be a luxury problem if we get to get back to worrying about finances. If you can’t pay your rent, at least no one will come and throw you out, you know? We’ll all have to put our heads together and figure out as employers, employees and business owners how we survive it.
As a musician and a small business owner, have you ever experienced anything like this in which everything had to be brought to a standstill?
I mean, 9/11 would be the only thing to think of where the world kind of stood still for a second — but just a second. Talk about how the music industry has changed, right: now, with streaming, most musicians need to make their living by touring. Back in 2001, when 9/11 happened, bands were still making their income, to a degree, from record sales. When 9/11 happened, we put together a tour, immediately — I think we called it the American Pride tour — to raise money for first responders that were hurting. We just did it on a whim, the venues were available, boom, we left two weeks later. You could never do that now. If you tried to book a tour with two weeks’ notice, there’d be no venues, because they’re all being held and booked a year, sometimes a year-and-a-half in advance. The world stopped, but then the world quickly rallied and tried to come together. This is different because we can’t rally around each other in a physical way. Even our tours, you could say, “Well, you could reschedule your May tour to the fall!” It was hard to find available dates to replace our St. Patrick’s Day shows, let alone a whole, routed tour. The Boston dates are just in one city, but if you’re depending on routing yourself across the country and you’re trying to do it in three months, those dates won’t be available.
I’m so glad it worked out that you can postpone these shows to September instead of canceling them, especially considering the new album.
Yeah — and the Boston marathon is that weekend. Hopefully that’ll be a time where everyone can be past this. That’s what I hope and pray for.
On that note: is there a silver lining to any of this?
I don’t mean to sound negative, but I don’t think there’s a silver lining here. The only silver lining I can say is that at least we can do this. Who knows? In another week we may not even be able to do this. We do have to get 12, 13 people together to do this, so the silver lining would be that there’s still music. Music is always a good escape. We’ll try to take peoples’ minds off the situation for 90 minutes.