ALBUM REVIEW: Dropkick Murphys – Okemah Rising

5.0 rating
Dropkick Murphys - Okemah Rising

In 2022, Dropkick Murphys released the album This Machine Still Kills Fascists. The album contained the lyrics of Woody Guthrie, with the band creating original musical scores. It saw a change of direction for Dropkick Murphys as they performed acoustically, which was a fitting tribute to Guthrie and his musical output. It was a superb album and was, in my opinion, one of the finest recordings of the year.

It would seem the recording sessions for this album spurned too much for only one release. As a result, a second album of Guthrie lyrics mixed with Dropkick Murphys unique Celtic-punk sound has been let loose on the public. Welcome to Okemah Rising.

Okemah Rising sees a continuation from This Machine Still Kills Fascists, maintaining the acoustic sound, but will it compare favourably? Or is this a ‘cashing in’ job? It certainly has a very tough act to follow. Dropkick Murphys are an honest band. Surely, they wouldn’t release something they weren’t proud of, would they?

The great news is that this is no get-rich-quick scheme. This is an album where you could have easily swapped a selection of tracks with This Machine… and there would have been no drop in quality. That might be fun to do for those with both albums – make your own versions and see which you prefer.

Boston’s finest kick the album off with ‘My Eyes Are Gonna Shine’. This is arguably the most Guthrie-sounding track on the album. I can hear Guthrie singing this with gusto. Think of his tracks like ‘This Land Is Your Land’, ‘Vigilante Man’, “Do-Re-Mi’ and ‘Pastures of Plenty’. And lyrically, it is classic Guthrie too. Taking aim at the political classes and those who sit on wealth, Ken Casey sings about the need for societal fairness, equality and respect.

Matt Kelly pounds out a thumping, marching rhythm which underpins the song as Casey croons, “When I meet my true believer/When I kiss my heavenly angel/When my folks take power/My eyes are gonna shine“. Vintage Guthrie is supported by vintage Dropkick Murphys. Not a bad way to start proceedings.

Next off the rank is Gotta Get to Peekskill’. Dropkick Murphys have recruited the help of Violent Femmes to give the track a richer, deeper sound. They certainly add their weight to provide the track with extra oomph. Acoustic Dropkick Murphys and Violent Femmes certainly have musical similarities. Written about the Peekskill Riots, which occurred in upstate New York in 1949, this song shows Guthrie’s commitment to American civil rights. He was attending a Paul Robeson benefit concert for the Civil Rights Congress. Protesters, many of the Ku Klux Klan members, turned up and attacked the concertgoers.

“I’ll follow the trail of blood on the ground/In through the gate, and mill with the crowd/I just gotta feelin’ that blood’s gonna fly/I got to get to Peekskill, break a leg or die” certainly paints a very clear picture of the events that unfolded that night. Sadly, some of these issues persist today.

Presently, many people are doing whatever they can to put food in their, and their families, bellies. Guthrie lived through similar trials and tribulations caused by the Great Depression in the United States. The sentiment of ‘Watchin the World Go By’ puts this under the spotlight. The bouncy, upbeat music of Dropkick Murphys initially makes this feel like a positive track, but scratching beneath the surface, you realise this is hardly a fun jaunt for the song’s protagonist. They work at any job, working all hours, to try and stay alive. In doing so, they are part of the development and improvement of the country, but they do not feel unable to take part in this brave new world. They are an outlier. There also seem to be references which may mean this song is looking at the challenges facing people of colour at that time.

‘I Know How It Feels’ is another song which could have been written in 2023. Boasting a sound reminiscent of The Pogues, Casey growls his way through this song about the struggles of the working person as Tim Brennan’s accordion playing reminds me of The Pogues’ James Fearnley. “I know how it feels when you walk on the street/And you don’t see a face that you know/And I know how it feels to work ’til you drop/And it’s 10,000 bills that you owe”, snarls Casey as he highlights how little has changed since Guthrie’s day. You’d think we would learn…

Jesse Ahern bolsters the vocals on ‘Rippin Up the Boundary Line’. Also from Boston, Ahern supported Dropkick Murphys on their recent UK tour. His voice works well against that of Casey. “Boundary line, dividing line/You just ain’t no friend of mine/You’re keeping my people apart all the time/Bye bye bye, oh boundary line”, they both sing as resonances with today’s migrant debate come to the surface. We all share the planet, we are all one people, and boundaries are political choices. This is often overlooked and ignored, replaced with rhetoric and gaslighting.

It is amazing just how much energy Dropkick Murphys can create with their acoustic sound. There is so much punch it is hard to fathom how they achieve this without their electric guitars. When This Machine… was released, I was worried they would lose their dynamism and sound sub-par. They quickly proved they could go in either direction and make great music. Maybe they will revisit previous albums and look at acoustic versions of those too.

If Peaky Blinders ever makes a comeback, ‘Hear the Curfew Blowin’ needs to be included in the soundtrack. There are shades of Red Right Hand’ by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’, with a chorus containing vocals that Ennio Morricone would be proud of. Once more, we are confronted with the double standards of the US, where segregation was commonplace during Guthrie’s life. “Now my only crime is not being your kind/At the stroke of midnight, I’ll hang below”, Casey croons with a tinge of sadness as the fate of the song’s main character is revealed.

‘Bring It Home’ see Jaime Wyatt add her country twang to this cheeky number. Guthrie may have been very political in his writing, but he also had a sense of humour. This song is another high-energy romp, telling the story of a cheating husband who gets his comeuppance. After cheating with a neighbour, he’d bring home electrical appliances to keep his wife sweet, saying he saw them at the neighbour’s house where he stopped by for a ‘friendly chat’. Jaime Wyatt, playing the long-suffering wife, turns the tables on him, kicks him out, and lives an easier life due to all the electrical aids he bought. Delightful. Reap what you sow, I guess.

Jaime Wyatt joins in on the next track, ‘When I Was a Little Boy’. This stripped-down, slow ballad with a traditional Irish feel tackles the importance of learning to fight – something close to Guthrie’s and Dropkick Murphys hearts. I don’t mean a good scrap, although that might be needed from time to time. This is all about fighting for what is right. “When you are a little boy, you’ll have to get much bigger/You’ll have to get much wider, you’ll have to get much stronger/You’ll have to learn to throw some rocks, and you’ll have to learn to run/, But you’ll have to study fighting, study fighting most of all”. Once people stop fighting for a better world, the game will be over.

Guthrie penned a few anti-fascist songs during his life, and ‘Run Hitler Run’ sits amongst them very comfortably. This is a great example of how Dropkick Murphys can create great-sounding acoustic Celtic punk. Punk isn’t all about screeching guitars, after all. It also reminds me a little of early The Men They Couldn’t Hang. Tim Brennan comes to the fore with some beautiful guitar work, and Casey roars about going after Adolf Hitler to stop him and eradicate his kind. Fascist leaders and their followers still exist, so the work is not yet complete. Keep going after those Hitlers with all the vim and venom you can muster.

Last up is an acoustic version of the 2004 Dropkick Murphys song ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’. Called the ‘Tulsa version’ on the album, the song was first released as part of the single ‘Fields of Athenry’. It was then rerecorded for the 2005 album The Warrior’s Code. Some people do not realise that the lyrics for this song were originally a poem written by Woody Guthrie. Although it sounds different due to it being played acoustically, it delivers every ounce of the slap across the face as the most known 2005 version does. That’s no mean feat.

Several things have occurred to me after listening to Okemah Rising (and This Machine Still Kills Fascists too). Firstly, the music of Dropkick Murphys and the voice of Ken Casey, and Woody Guthrie’s lyrics are very comfortable bedfellows. They have a synergy that you rarely find. Secondly, Dropkick Murphys make wonderful and engaging acoustic music. Although they will no doubt go back to their usual methods of melody-making, I hope they don’t abandon their newly found acoustic mojo. It suits them and showcases their talents wonderfully. I genuinely hope they create another album of their own works recorded in this vein. It would no doubt be well received by the fans as well as the wider music-buying public.

I hope these recordings motivate people to revisit the works of Woody Guthrie. His work stands as an exemplar and has inspired many musicians over the years. Much of what he wrote and sang about is still relevant today, and his passion for change cannot be overstated. I also hope the songs on Okemah Rising will encourage people to challenge injustices, geed up by the powerful, energetic and passionate music of Dropkick Murphys. Go to it and be the difference you want to see in the world.


Xsnoize Author
Iam Burn 19 Articles
Iam Burn is a photographer based in the North East of England. Fave bands: R.E.M, The Lovely Eggs, Half Man Half Biscuit, Madness, Inspiral Carpets, Billy Bragg, The Pogues, The Proclaimers, The Ukrainians, They Might Be Giants, The Chats, Matt Berry, Lead Belly, Grace Petrie, The Beautiful South, Carter USM… and many more! Favourite album: Impossible to choose but Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables by Dead Kennedys is pretty awesome. Most embarrassing record still in my collection: Hole in my Shoe by Neil.

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