Music

The Young Dubliners are Masters of their Craft—and That Has Taken Time

Checking in with the 'elder statesmen' of Celtic rock

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Water finds its own level or keeps jostling about until it does. Thrashing about took Dublin native Keith Roberts from one side of Los Angeles to the other until he wound up in the bar that helped birth not just the Young Dubliners but Celtic rock brothers-in-arms, Flogging Molly.

More than 25 years later, the Dubliners are forefathers of the style, which combines the rollicking fiddle-driven jig of Irish music with full-throttle rock, which is again on display with their 2014 crowd-funded album, Nine.

"Being able to branch out a little now has created a lot of the fun but the 'elder statesmen' thing is bittersweet. People will come up to us, 'Oh man I grew up with you guys.' Go away. We're trying to chat up the young chicks. There is no advantage to you telling me your dad used to listen to us," said Roberts. "But that's where we are now."

The style required time to take root, even in Roberts' mind. The Dubliners started in the '80s, when Roberts began performing Irish ballads with a fellow expat, Paul O'Toole. They recorded a pair of cassettes before their sound began evolving from Irish folk and pop into a Celtic rock sound.

Roberts really caught on following the 1983 hit "In a Big Country" from Scottish band Big Country.

"It was like you had Irish music, and then you had rock 'n' roll, and I liked both but I didn't exactly feel that they would work well together until I heard Big Country playing those big riffs on the fricking electric guitar," Roberts said. "It was really getting me with that Celtic sound, but it was ballsy enough where I would enjoy playing."

His path to the Young Dubliners wound through a bar that he unexpectedly took over.

"Then [I] performed every Saturday night as the headliner, which was also the beginning of the Young Dubliners and the opening band was Dave King, who now leads Flogging Molly," he said.

King had been plucked from a Dublin tenement at 18 to sing for Katmandu, a project featuring former Motorhead guitarist "Fast" Eddie Clarke. When that fell apart, King started a rock band in L.A., and would join Young Dubliners on stage at the end of the night on occasion for a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On," which showcased King's falsetto pipes.

Roberts hints King's transformation into a Celtic rocker was inspired by Roberts own embrace of the sound, though it still took more than a dozen years for Young Dubliners to find their voice.

"What happened at the get-go, we wrote rock songs and Irish-heavy songs," he said. "The rock songs got on the radio, and the Irish songs were the most popular live. Then about three to four records into it, we found our sound."

Roberts said Real World (Higher Octave, 2005) was the band's first signature album: "You can turn this one and know it's us because of the way the fiddle and the guitar are playing together."

Real World was a huge critical success during the sea change in music sales. This brave new world was built for a band like Young Dubliners, which has never seen the kind of airplay or publicity befitting a band of its tenure. The band has built its audience by word of mouth: the word is usually about how energetic and exciting Young Dubliners' live shows are.

When the House of Blues in Hollywood announced it was closing in 2015, the people in charge polled former employees on their all-time favorite HOB performer. Young Dubliners beat out Duran Duran to play the final HOB show. Young Dubs' fan-friendly approach has been its calling card and helped when the band decided to crowdfund Nine, through its website.

"When we launched the idea of doing this album on our own, we didn't go through Kickstarter or any of these because they all felt restrictive," Roberts said. "The idea that you have to have the album done or give back the money, what's the difference between that and the record label? On the other hand, I could've used a good kick in the arse because we were so freaking self-critical, we couldn't finish it."

Nine took more than 18 months to complete, and Roberts rewrote some songs as many as four times. He and the band jumped down the rabbit hole and, when they came up, Roberts almost had to push the album away because he he had overlistened to it. Then something happened: Both fans and critics loved it, with many calling it the Dubliners' best.

"What we learned," Roberts said, "is you need a deadline."

Crowdfunding is just one way the band has managed its affairs. It also books early shows at performing arts centers to reach audiences that don't want to go to bars for a 10 p.m. show; combining Irish tours with sightseeing junkets at low prices so fans can tour the countryside then watch the band play at night.

During his interview with Boise Weekly, Roberts was looking forward to a weeklong rock cruise, which he hoped would be better than an Irish music cruise a few years ago.

"We were by far the most rocking noisy," he said. "We were definitely put where we would do the least damage."

Without having much of a clue where it was going, the Young Dubliners are moving at a different pace and happy to still be in the game.

"You never know if it's going to happen, you could fall by the wayside," said Roberts. "We've seen a lot of bands pass us by on the way up and met all of them on the way back down. We're that fat turtle still chugging our way up the hill."