Boston’s Dropkick Murphys continue to enthrall fans around the globe, while founding member Ken Casey’s commitment to his hometown reveals itself daily.
“20 years seems like it was yesterday,” says a smiling Ken Casey —lead singer, and the only remaining original member of the Dropkick Murphys, Boston’s Celtic punk superstars — when asked about the group’s upcoming 25thanniversary. “If things take a turn for the better, we’ll acknowledge that milestone next year.”
That’s not to say Casey, 51, and the band haven’t done their best in 2020 to help fans in Boston and around the world shake off the shutdown blues. A pair of live-streamed concerts drew a combined 19 million viewers — one from a studio on St. Patrick’s Day and one from Fenway Park on May 29. The two concerts supported the Boston Resiliency Fund (with Habitat for Humanity and Feeding America also being supported by the Fenway show) and — combined — raised more than $800,000.
Generosity is nothing new for Casey, who grew up in Milton, and his bandmates. He and the Dropkicks started The Claddagh Fund in 2009 to support children’s charities, veterans’ causes, and alcohol and drug recovery efforts.
In addition, Casey launched Murphys Boxing — a boxing management and promotion company — in 2015. With nearly two-dozen fighters under its banner, Murphys Boxing would be more than enough work for the average person. However, Casey also has had success in the restaurant world. He reestablished and reopened McGreevy’s — under the banner of “America’s First Sports Bar” — on Boylston Street in 2008, and then followed that up by opening Lower Mills Tavern (2016) and Yellow Door Taqueria (2017) in Dorchester. A second Yellow Door location opened just before the pandemic closed businesses everywhere.
‘Together We Are What We Can’t Be Alone’
“Staying power in the music business is definitely something to be proud of,” Casey says when asked about the band’s 2021 silver anniversary. “It’s been such a grassroots thing from the start.”
The Dropkick Murphys started distributing their music by pressing their own 45s — singles on 7-inch vinyl for the younger crowd — and taking out ads in punk rock magazines. “We put together a catalog with t-shirts that we printed ourselves,” Casey says. “Someone would have to read a review of the single, mail order it from us, and we’d write back with the record and include this catalog of t-shirts — which, by the way, I drew by hand. When you’re building a fanbase like that, they tend to stick with you.”
The band — named after John E. “Dropkick” Murphy, a one-time pro wrestler who operated an alcohol rehab facility in Acton from 1941-71 — signed with Hellcat Records in 1997, releasing its first album (“Do or Die”) a year later. However, by 2000, the other three original members had departed the band. The additions, though, of singer Al Barr, drummer Matt Kelly, and guitarist James Lynch during that same period became the cornerstone from which the Dropkicks have created eight more studio albums and a reputation for some of the most energetic concerts in the world.
Still, even with that worldwide following, few bands are so closely associated with their hometowns than the Dropkicks and Boston. “It’s been the type of thing that crosses generational boundaries,” he says. “My grandmother passed away a couple years ago, but into her 90s, she was coming to the shows. My daughter, who’s 18 now, did Irish step dancing, and her school would dance with us at the shows, while my younger children would be watching on stage.”
Casey continues, “So when I think of Boston, I don’t necessarily think, ‘Oh, we’re playing at the Bruins game.’ Don’t get me wrong, that’s great. But when I think of it, it’s the fact that we can come home to our friends and family. When we play a show, they’re all there. When we do our homestand in March, that’s when we get to see everyone in our lives.”
While those annual March shows are a staple for both the band and its fans, it’s the shows that “transcend the music” that he remembers most.
The week of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Dropkick Murphys were in California preparing to play that following Saturday at the Coachella music festival. “The actual day of the bombing was my birthday, April 15,” Casey says. “I woke up in Santa Cruz, Calif., to that news. I was concerned about family and friends. I own a bar one block from the site, so I was concerned about everyone that worked for me, and for the friends I knew would be there.”
The entire week, through a series of club shows and at Coachella, the band opened each concert with a moment of silence. “Normally when you’ve got a couple thousand people imbibing and talking, you can’t pull off a moment of silence,” Casey says. “But every night we did it, you could hear a pin drop. It was very heartwarming to us the way the audiences on the West Coast reacted to what we — and everyone — were going through.”
Casey says the fundraiser at the House of Blues that the Dropkicks played when they returned to Boston is the most memorable show of the band’s career. “I don’t even know if I can put into words what the atmosphere was like,” he says. “Such emotion from the audience and the band. We were raising money for the cause, of course, but it transcended that. It was more about the community spirit. Playing actually helped us as much or more than anyone else.”
‘I’ve Got Your Name Written Here’
Casey calls the band’s livestreamed concerts memorable, as well. “We’d always wanted to stream the St. Patrick’s Day show. There are people around the world who tell us, ‘I want to go to Boston for one of your St. Patrick’s Day shows,’” Casey says. “But we just never got around to doing it.”
But, somehow, 2020 provided the opportunity. “We were scheduled to play an event for a Boston company called Pega,” Casey says. “We were going to play their international convention here with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in May. But when the pandemic happened, they cancelled the event and decided to do a virtual convention.”
Pega asked the band to consider going into a production studio to record a four-song concert that could be used at the virtual event. The band agreed but also hit on an idea. “We asked, ‘Since we’re all set up, can we do a full concert for everyone else?’” Casey says. “It was all on a whim, but it came together in 48 hours. We had no clue that 10 million people would end up watching.”
Casey says the convergence of St. Patrick’s Day, the expectation of a Dropkicks’ show, and attention to social media drove the response. “Man, it was amazing what being locked in your homes could do for the stream’s numbers,” Casey says, self-effacingly. “There was just no competition.”
The band also decided, last minute, to do a text-to-donate fundraiser for the Boston Resiliency Fund. The result: more than $60,000 raised. Casey says the band quickly began to consider what else they could do during the pandemic.
“Every musician you saw playing, they were doing something acoustic on their living room couch,” Casey says. “We knew we wanted to do another concert, but the only way we could play as a full band again would be extreme social distancing — and nicer weather would offer us the opportunity.”
When it came to a location, they swung for the fences. “People weren’t seeing Fenway for baseball,” Casey says. “The idea of people getting to ‘go to Fenway’ for the night, and the idea of us using the infield as a frame for the band seemed like a great way to social distance. And the Red Sox were amazing: they just gave us the park. I think all we paid for was the lights.”
Casey says that putting such an event on in normal times would take, at least, a 100-man crew. “The park only allowed 35 people inside, and that’s including 10 Red Sox staff and security,” he says. “With eight band members, you’re down to 17. Our own crew of techs is eight, as well. We had six cameramen — hats off to the team that pulled it off.”
One of the highlights of the show was the appearance — via videoboard from his home studio in New Jersey — of Bruce Springsteen, who played a pair of songs (the Dropkicks’ “Rose Tattoo” and Springsteen’s “American Land”) with the band.
“Springsteen is who he portrays himself to be — and then some,” Casey says. “We built a relationship with him back when his son went to Boston College. He started coming to the shows with his son. He even joined us on stage.”
Springsteen also appeared on a charity recording of “Rose Tattoo” in the aftermath of the marathon bombing. And “The Boss” even surprised Casey a couple of times at his own shows. “I was just there to watch. All of a sudden I get a text from the tour manager saying, ‘Bruce wants you up her for the encore,’” he says.
The Fenway concert drew 9 million more online viewers, and there are plans to release the two-song performance with Springsteen on vinyl by the end of summer. “What an honor to have an official release with Bruce Springsteen,” Casey says.
After the success of the late addition of a text-to-donate message for the St. Patrick’s Day concert, the band made a bigger plan to promote the charitable aspect of the Fenway show. “Pega said if you’re going to do that, we’ll match the first $150,000 in donations,” Casey says. “When people see a match, it kickstarts everything. We got it up to almost $750,000 raised.”
‘For Here, All Are One and Our Hearts Are True’
Philanthropy isn’t new to the Dropkicks, who started the Claddagh Fund in 2009. “It’s never been just about waving the flag for Boston; it’s about being entrenched in the roots of the city and being involved in a lot of causes from the get-go,” Casey says. “The three things we were most often involved in were children’s charities, veterans’ charities, and substance abuse/alcoholism treatment.”
Casey had a conversation with a respected peer who suggested that — while it was great that the band was involved with many charities — raising money under the banner of the band would drive more synergy from its fanbase.
“They were absolutely right, because our fans are the best,” he says. “If we get behind something, they get behind it. Of course, we have some big players and corporate donations that really help, but we also get $5 from the kid who writes a letter saying he made it mowing the lawn.”
Casey says his background and upbringing weigh heavily on his purpose with the Claddagh Fund. “We weren’t those people who were born to say, ‘I’m going to be in a band.’ We had all worked in the real world,” he says. “When we got in a band, and it wasn’t a nine-to-five thing, part of me always felt like I was doing something wrong. The charity is what gave the band a purpose, and made me feel I’m living a life that’s worthy.”
The band matches $1 per ticket sold as a donation to the Claddagh Fund — one of their biggest initiatives that has dried up during 2020. And the fund’s charity golf tournament — another big driver of donations — will not be a live event in 2020, and instead will be a virtual tournament. Casey says, “We’re encouraging everyone to go play a round with their friends, keep score, and then we’ll do a blind draw, putting every score in a hat and make a team. We’ll have some good prizes for that.”
He continues, “I guess this is a great place to say: check out claddaghfund.org! If you like what we’re doing, make a donation. The fundraising in March and at Fenway were not for the Claddagh Fund, because the pandemic didn’t necessarily fit inside our mission.”
Casey says that sometimes charities can get too narrowly focused, which is why they teamed with different groups for the livestreams. “Habitat for Humanity, Boston Resiliency Fund, Feeding America: they’re helping in a broader scope than we really could,” Casey says.
However, as the pandemic has continued, some of the issues it’s caused touch deeply on the Claddagh Fund’s mission. “Sober housing and treatment for substance abuse — that’s something we’ve been helping with,” Casey says. “These times have caused a higher rate of relapse and heavier use of drugs. Our actual need has gone up, but our fundraising has gone down.”
Casey also touched on a 2018 raffle that the Claddagh Fund did in conjunction with Devin and Jason McCourty’s Tackle Sickle Cell campaign. The grand prize was a trip to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. “If I remember, we raised somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000,” he says. “I love how those two carry themselves. I love when the Boston athletes that you watch and revere are as good of people off the field as they are players on it.”
With all of these works, it’s no surprise that Casey earned the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps’ Embracing the Legacy Award in 2016. “Growing up in Boston as an Irish-Catholic Democrat, that’s like winning the Super Bowl,” Casey says. “It was a proud moment. I got to bring my entire family. Few things actually end up on the shelf. Most of the things I’ve acquired through the years end up in a box in a basement somehow. The Robert F. Kennedy Award is right beside my Emmy.”
Emmy, you say?
“My Emmy is for ‘Best Edit in a Fishing Show,’” he says with a laugh. “I happened to be on Charlie Moore’s show and that episode won an Emmy. Was it my fishing? I think the edit might have been the scuba team heading down to put a fish on my line.”
‘Climbing Up the Top Sails’
While he may be an Emmy-winning fisherman, Casey has put his money into a different sport: boxing. He founded Murphys Boxing in 2014.
“A friend, Danny O’Connor, was a two-time national amateur champion, an Olympic alternate in Beijing, and was 14-1 as a pro when I got involved with his career. I said, I think I can help you get some of the press coverage you deserve and introduce you to the band’s fanbase,” Casey says. He started by doing social media promotions but, he adds, “Boxing is a funny thing. It’s like quicksand when you get involved.”
After becoming his manager, Casey was shocked at how little O’Connor’s promoter did on the fighter’s behalf. “I stopped being his manager and became his promoter,” Casey says. “Then you’re promoting one guy, but you see some other local fighters struggling, you say to yourself, ‘Well, if I can do it for Danny …’ Next thing you know, I’m promoting 20 guys.”
Casey says creating his boxing business “stoked my entrepreneurial spirit,” likening it to the early days of the band. Of course, the pandemic has slowed Murphys Boxing to a crawl. “We are shut down from live shows in Boston,” Casey says. “Some bigger promoters are doing no-audience, televised shows. A fighter I promote, Abraham Nova, just had a win on ESPN in June. And we’re close to signing a deal for a world title fight for another of our fighters.”
Casey’s other passion: restaurants. He started by opening McGreevy’s just 1,200 steps from Fenway Park.
“McGreevy’s was my start in the restaurant business, but I have sad news: McGreevy’s will not open after the pandemic,” Casey says. “It’s heartbreaking to me. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll open in another location. But the landlord wanted April rent, and full May rent … and June — what are you going to do?”
The idea for the popular bar came about in 2004 after the Dropkicks re-wrote and recorded “Tessie,” a song from an early 20th-century musical that was a rallying cry for the Royal Rooters — a fan group considered by many the progenitors of Red Sox Nation. Those Royal Rooters were led by Michael T. “Nuf Ced” McGreevy, who owned the Third Base Saloon, near the Huntington Avenue Grounds, which was the team’s home field prior to the 1912 opening of Fenway Park.
“We brought ‘Tessie’ back, and the Sox won it all,” Casey says. “And the history of the Royal Rooters, that ardent fan base that included JFK’s grandfather Honey Fitz, John L. Sullivan — the bare-knuckle boxing champion — and ‘Nuf Ced’ McGreevy, came flowing back.”
He continues, “Our partner Pete Nash had built a replica of the bar in Cooperstown, and we said, ‘Why don’t we open a working replica in Boston?’ I was so intrigued by and involved with the design process. My great business partner that I grew up with, Brian O’Donnell, is an unbelievable restaurant operator.”
Four years ago, Casey and his partners stepped into the revitalization of the Lower Mills area of Dorchester, opening the Lower Mills Tavern, followed the next year by their first Yellow Door Taqueria. (The second Yellow Door, in Boston’s South End, opened weeks before the pandemic, but did well with takeout and is now serving with ample outdoor seating.)
“I love the Lower Mills Tavern, and I love the Yellow Door,” Casey says. “I hope my future in the restaurant business will be many more Yellow Door Taquerias. I love the atmosphere. Every time I’m at Yellow Door, the tables are so close — and I’m not like this at other restaurants — I end up talking to the tables around us. It just has a different atmosphere that, I think, comes with eating tacos. That’s where my heart is for the future. We’re talking about buying a Yellow Door truck.”
Yes, the Irish-Catholic boy from Boston is big on boxing. But he’s all about his tacos, too. Casey closes with an anecdote that ties those interests in a nifty, carnitas-scented bow.
“I do a lot of partnerships with Golden Boy, Oscar de la Hoya’s company in L.A.,” he says. “I had their people out for one of the fights. I brought them to the Lower Mills Yellow Door and got a major thumbs-up! If you can get 10 L.A. people to give you a thumbs up on your tacos in Boston, you’re doing all right.”