Dropkick Murphys singer Ken Casey was walking the booths and stalls of the Great Allentown Fair before his band’s show that night on the Grandstand Stage when he started to feel increasingly uneasy. The leader of the Boston band known for their Irish-influenced punk rock and vocal support of workers’ rights saw more than a few vendors at the 170th edition of the eastern Pennsylvania fair selling divisively political hats, shirts, and bumper stickers of the “Let’s Go Brandon” variety.
“I felt like we were playing a MAGA flea market,” Casey tells Rolling Stone. “Every other table was selling the MAGA gear and the ‘Fuck Joe Biden’ gear and all this stuff. I was a little overwhelmed and befuddled. It was like I was dropped into another planet.”
Casey reached his breaking point when he was approached by a guy who claimed to be a Dropkick Murphys fan wearing a T-shirt with what Casey calls a “pro-QAnon slash insurrection” slogan on the front.
“I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, I ain’t taking a fucking picture with you with that shirt on,’” he says.
Casey removed himself from the conversation and made his way back to his band. But he couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d just witnessed. When Dropkick Murphys took the stage later that September evening, he stopped the show, asked for a moment of the crowd’s time, and proceeded to metaphorically flip over the tables of the MAGA moneychangers. The rant — in which he threatened to fight election deniers outside the fair — was captured on video and earned Casey both praise and death threats.
“If you’re out there buying these fucking hats that these swindlers are selling…then you’re part of the problem!” Casey yelled. “Because you’re being duped by the greatest swindler in the history of the world…and a bunch of grifters and billionaires who don’t give a shit about you or your family!”
A few weeks after the Allentown smackdown, Casey isn’t budging from his remarks. “Some people were saying, ‘I can’t believe you talk to your fans like that.’ I said, hold on, you don’t know the whole story… If you’ve been around since the beginning [of the band], you have to know where we stand on a lot of things in the political agenda, about how we feel about workers rights in particular.”
If for some reason, there’s still confusion, Dropkick Murphys’ new album This Machine Still Kills Fascists will clear it up. The record finds Casey and the band setting their supercharged brand of music to the lyrics of Woody Guthrie, the quintessential folk-protest singer and Oklahoma native who championed the working class and famously scribbled “This machine kills fascists” on his acoustic guitar. There are stomping anthems castigating “crooks,” “robbers,” and “rats” (“Ten Times More”), shout-alongs celebrating unions (“All You Fonies”), and smoldering indictments of wealthy hypocrisy and cruelty (“The Last One”).
Dropkick Murphys worked closely with the folksinger’s daughter Nora Guthrie and the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa — where the group recorded the LP with producer Ted Hutt — to scour Guthrie’s archives for previously unpublished lyrics. The band had already cut two of Guthrie’s compositions in their career, “Gonna Be a Blackout Tonight” and their best-known song, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.”
This time, Casey selected lyrics that, despite being written 80 or so years ago, were especially resonant in today’s moment, a time when democracy is imperiled, the wealth gap is widening, and fascism is having a resurgence.
“If I dropped these lyrics in front of you, you’d go, ‘Oh, what band wrote this last week?’” Casey says. “It goes to show the world is cyclical and what goes around, unfortunately, sometimes comes around. And it’s coming back around again.”
“The Last One” is both the centerpiece of the album and Casey’s favorite. It’s also a duet with Evan Felker of Oklahoma band Turnpike Troubadours, who will open two of Dropkick Murphys’ annual St. Patrick’s Day shows in Boston next year. Casey was drawn to the lyric “How can you worship the rich man/who sees poor folks and refuses them?” — a line that not only asks us to see the humanity in one another, but summons the twice-impeached, orange-tinted charlatan at the heart of Casey’s Allentown rant.
“How can you take a working-class person and turn them into someone who would argue on behalf of the ultra-rich, over standing shoulder to shoulder with their fellow worker? But that’s what the people in power and wealth always wanted to do: Divide. Their biggest fear is the voice of the people and the voice of the worker united,” Casey says. “Those people in power, the elite and the wealthy, are really just laughing at us. And no one in my opinion sums that up more than Donald Trump. Pretending that he would actually spend a second of his life with the average Make America Great Again supporter that comes to his rally? Not a chance. If he didn’t look at that person as someone he could scam five dollars out of, or a vote, he would literally taser that guy.”
But for all his vitriol, Casey isn’t seeking to divide. He hopes to introduce Dropkick Murphys to a new set of fans on the band’s upcoming acoustic tour. While the shows are in theaters, acoustic, and without Casey’s fellow shouter Al Barr (the scally-capped singer took a leave of absence to care for his ill mother but will return sometime in 2023), it’s not “three guys sitting on a barstool being mellow,” he says. There’s talk of more dates with Turnpike Troubadours too, which would introduce Dropkick Murphys to a new set of fans in Middle America.
Even onstage in Allentown, Casey did his best to bridge the divide. In an exchange that wasn’t captured on cell phone video, he found the guy in the T-shirt he had rebuffed earlier and offered to make a trade.
“I politely pointed him out in the crowd and I said, ‘I’ll offer you a brand new Dropkick Murphys shirt, which was made in the United States by an American worker, in exchange for that fucking disgusting shirt that I can guarantee you was made outside of America,” Casey says. “The guy threw his shirt up and took the Dropkick shirt. I said, ‘Now we’re breaking down barriers!’”