This article first appeared on Nov. 11, 1998.
Being in Las Vegas makes The Young Dubliners' Keith Roberts puke. Well, sort of.
"Last time in Vegas, I might have had food poisoning or something," Roberts explains. "And about two or three songs into the set, I felt like I was gonna puke. And I ran off the stage and dropped the guitar--I'd never done that before. The band kept going with the song, and after about a minute and a half, they had no clue where they were. And I came barreling back onto the stage after I got a glass of water and calmed meself down, and this huge cheer goes up. Like, 'Oh, he's not dead.' So I sang the last verse and said, 'Sorry everyone--I got beeped!' That broke the ice."
The Dubs, as their fans call them, know plenty of ways to break the ice. With 15 or so instruments--including saxophones, flutes, electric and acoustic guitars, mandolins, tin whistles, violins, organ, percussion, bass and drums, among others--spread out over six members, the Los Angeles-based Celtic folk-meets-alterna-rock powerhouse has built a strong national reputation based on their explosive live shows and constant touring.
"The show is pretty intense," says Roberts. "If you're not wrecked after you leave our gig, then something's wrong. Most people leave feeling pretty destroyed."
Their reputation precedes them--they've sold out no less than 20 consecutive shows at L.A.'s House of Blues and caused traffic to be redirected after 11,000 people showed up at a Santa Monica pier performance.
"Here in L.A., we've been playing live for so long that our show has advanced quicker than our recording chops because we've only been in the studio twice in four years," says Roberts. "So a lot of people would come to the shows and say, 'oh, I love the record; I love the songs, but nothing compares to your live show.' So you take that as flattery and as a compliment, but because I'm onstage--we're just doing our best, and I don't really know why we're touted as the great live band."
The answer can be found on Alive Alive-O, their third album and their first for Cargo Records. Recorded at Solana Beach's Belly-Up Tavern in a single performance by renowned indie producer Steve Albini (who's produced Nirvana, Page/Plant, The Breeders and The Pixies, among others), the eight-song extended EP reveals in one recording both the enthusiasm of the Dubliners' fans and the energy the band puts into playing its signature brand of Celtic rock.
"(Albini) has a great rep for recording bands--he doesn't like to see himself as a producer; he likes to see himself as a recorder of your show," says Roberts. "That's what sold us on the whole concept of doing the live album. We were like, 'Jeez--if we can get Steve Albini and Le Mobile recording studio, and we can go play out of L.A. and sort of silence the critics who said we were just an L.A. band and nothing else, then let's do it!' So all the planets sort of aligned for that one."
The Young Dubliners' beginnings go back to the beginning of the decade, when Roberts and fellow transplanted Dubliner Paul O'Toole began playing Irish ballads as a duo in Irish pubs around L.A.
"When we started out, we were really doing this for free booze," says Roberts. "We met other musicians slowly, over a long period of time. Suddenly The Young Dubliners started to mutate into this rock band, and the crowd seemed to be digging it. So I started to write songs; Paul started to write songs, and then we started to replace the covers with the original material. Then word got out that we were drawing these huge crowds in Santa Monica, so the Hollywood clubs came knocking. It was around the time that we broke into Hollywood, which would have been around '91 or '92," Roberts recalls, "that we started realizing that there was a potential for a record deal."
After signing with Scottie Bros. ("We jumped at the first thing offered," says Roberts) the Dubs hit the road and haven't really stopped since.
"We've been road warriors pretty much since '93," says Roberts. "We've toured the country twice for this record alone and been to Europe, pretty much under our own steam." The band toured from February to October of 1998 supporting Alive Alive-O and has spent much of October working on new material for the next studio album, which Roberts says he's optimistic about.
"I'm sort of feeling like this next record is gonna be the big one," says Roberts. "It's gonna be the one that has the best songs; it'll be the best recorded, hopefully the definitive Celtic rock album that we do--where the Celtic and the rock is blended at its best. Because we've gotten close in the past, but it hasn't been entire albums of it. So I really want this next one to be the best thing we've ever done, and hopefully we'll be rewarded by it being the biggest one we've ever done."
Roberts says the band is constantly trying to improve and write better songs--and that he, as a writer and leader, has become more open to new ideas recently because of it.
"Paul O'Toole and myself were writing all the songs, and then Randy Woolford, the guitar player, got involved, and then Bren Holmes, the bass player, also got involved," explains Roberts. "But when Paul quit (before Alive Alive-O) it pretty much fell to myself and Randy to be the main writers. But one of the things we're doing for this new record is, we're really drawing on everybody's input."
Roberts says that although he and Woolford now write most of the band's material, it has never been the "Keith Roberts Band"--he says the music is too dependent on the other members.
"We've tried, on occasion, to write certain types of songs," says Roberts, "but we just can't. Everything we write ends up sounding like us, no matter what we try to do. So every time we write something--by changing up instrumentation, we manage to inject everything with a unique sound."
Roberts says that the Dubs (including drummer John Mattox, saxophonist/organist Jeff Dellisanti and violinist Mark Epting) are very much a rock band now with a Celtic influence, rather than an Irish ballad band with a rock influence. But he says he still loves the Irish ballads that he started out playing.
"I love to take an ancient Irish ballad and just rock the crap out of it," says Roberts. "That's when we're at our most traditional--when we take 'Follow me Up To Carlow' or 'Foggy Dew' or 'Rocky Road to Dublin' and we turn them into rock. I mean they are still the major crowd pleasers--the people go bananas."
Roberts is happy with the direction his band is going in, even if big-time success has yet to hit them.
"I set out with this whole project to try and bring Celtic music into a '90s, radio commercial, viable entity," Roberts says. "And a lot has happened since I started out, with Riverdance and with bands like the Cranberries doing it too. But my peers know who we are, they know the band. And despite the fact that we haven't had the huge national success that we'd love to have, we've had so many other things that some of the bands that have had national success would crave."
Roberts says that close friendships, a strong fan base and a steady working schedule all contribute to the Dubs' continued longevity--an element that might seem fundamental to some but one that he sees as key to their present accomplishments and essential to their future success.
"There were about six or seven bands in L.A. in the mid-'90s who were tips to the top," Roberts says. "We were one of them, the Uninvited was one of them and Ozomatli was one of them. And we're the only band of the three that are still going, that are out there with records."
Because half the band is American, and they are all in their early to mid-thirties, Roberts says he often gets comments about the band's name. He says the "young" in the name refers to a famous, now-elderly Irish ballad band called the Dubliners, by whom he was influenced as a kid--and that's about as far as the name goes.
"It gave me a chance to say that this is the next generation of what will hopefully become as popular as they are," Roberts says. "But 'The Young Dubliners' is just the name of a band. It's not supposed to be a statement. It's what we are called. People tell me, 'you're not all from Ireland and you're not all that young. And I tell them, 'yeah--and as far as I know, the Fine Young Cannibals never fuckin' ate anybody!"