Dropkick Murphys – ‘Okemah Rising’

By Katherine Allvey

Woody Guthrie, iconic American singer songwriter behind one of Mojo’s ‘100 Records That Changed The World’, was an artist who wasn’t afraid to put his money where his mouth is politically. Writing about the suffering faced by ordinary Americans during the Great Depression of the 1920s and the displacement of farmers when the soil of Oklahoma turned to burning dust, he would perform with ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ on his guitar and was openly communist during a period of time where it wasn’t exactly ok to express such views in mainstream society. Why include a biography of Guthrie in a music review? Well, he is obviously a hero to the Dropkick Murphys, who’ve recorded a second homage to his music in the form of ‘Okemah Rising’, a followup to 2022’s ‘This Machine Still Kills Fascists’.

The band have collaborated with the Guthrie family before (arguably their biggest hit, ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston’, is an unreleased Guthrie track re-jigged into the Murphys style), and in interviews singer Ken Casey has suggested he feels a thematic affinity between his music and Guthrie’s. But the question remains as to whether the second part of the Dropkick Murphys’ passion project stands up as album on its own rather than just a political and personal statement. 

The first single drop, ‘I Know How It Feels’, is pure Murphys twiddly-diddly Irish folky gold, heavy on the accordion and stand-up-strong sentiment. It’s almost purely acoustic, the kind of song to be played outside a striking picket line. ‘Gotta Get To Peekskill’, the followup, is very similar but with a rowdy, anti-racist rhythm that’s sure to play well when slotted into a setlist of classics. A lot of this album feels like it would be best suited to be interspersed between electric, punkier tracks, and it feels like they should have learned from the Pogues’ tactics: a softer track needs to be teamed with a vile or bitter one to avoid mawkishness. 

While ‘Gotta Get To Peekskill’ doesn’t make the most of guest artists the Violent Femmes, ‘Rippin Up the Boundary Line’ uses growly Bostonian roarer Jessie Ahern to maximum effect, and getting a third male voice on lead gives this united, workers choir effect which really works. Ahern’s delicate touch on the summertime guitar picking followed by a cappella interludes elevates a simplistic track to something a tad more special. ‘My Eyes Are Gonna Shine’ is a hopeful holiday opener with those folky drumbeats lifted from The Dubliners keeping the whole thing in line, and this standout track sets this utopian tone for the album.

Oddly, one of the most rip-roaring tracks with the best backing vocals is the most confusing. ‘Run Hitler Run’. “Run, Hitler, Run, we’re coming to get you,” intones Casey over peppy boxcar beats and the classic Murphys wail and dramatic harmonica. For sure, it’s a great song, but Hitler isn’t exactly a contemporary figure, and why they picked this historical artefact to preserve in its entirety when other Guthrie songs from a similar era have been adapted to exploit their universal messages is somewhat of a mystery. Finishing on ‘Shipping Up To Boston – Tulsa Version’ seems like an explanation of the Murphys’ choice to take on this project, as it’s a reworked version of their hit in the style Guthrie would have picked if he released it. It’s an interesting counter history moment with finally some shouted moments and a wailing, desolate country energy, and the banjo feels less a novelty and more a necessity. 

If anything, this album proves that the Dropkick Murphys are more than capable of making an excellent acoustic album, which they absolutely should as a career-spanning retrospective.  Imagine ‘Rose Tattoo’ and ‘Good Rats’ in this style and it’s easy to see the potential. But this album lacks the gutsy, ‘Bastards On Parade’-style roaring Celtic breakdowns which the band do so well, and they seem to have lost sight of their strengths in favour of flying their own political and historical flag. Perhaps this is their bid to be seen as a ‘serious band’, or it’s their comment on society’s injustices in the present day, but either way, ‘Okemah Rising’ is unlikely to enter the hallowed halls of Dropkick Murphys fan favourites.  

Kate Allvey

Three more album reviews for you

Graphic Nature - ‘Who Are You When No One Is Watching?’

Northbound - 'Juniper'

LIVE: Download Festival 2024 - Sunday