If, as some suggest, punk is the 20th century urban blues, it’s because it speaks a universal language of disaffection and frustration while preaching hope, solidarity, and resilience. When you think about it, “We Shall Overcome” isn’t so far from “World Up My Ass,” even if much of that original anger has been diluted and Hot Topic-ated. Against such a backdrop, Boston punk traditionalists the Street Dogs stand out as much for the passion of their beliefs as the chunky, old-school, shout-along punk they play.
They’ve covered Billy Bragg, Kris Kristofferson, and Sham 69 on previous albums, giving some insight where their loyalties lie, but their two biggest influences are probably The Clash and fellow Beantowners The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who according to lead singer Mike McColgan, “showed us how to take it to the world.” That’s what they’ve done, gathering momentum over the last half-dozen years, during which McColgan has come full circle.
The evocative, gravelly-voiced McColgan returned from army service in Desert Storm, and started the Dropkick Murphys in 1996. Two years later, they made their debut, Do or Die, for Epitaph imprint Hellcat Records. But McColgan’s tenure with the band abruptly came to an end of his own volition, when he joined the Boston Fire Department to follow in the footsteps of a beloved family member.
“My uncle Kevin was a pivotal person in my life and a powerful example. His career made a big impression on me as a young kid,” McColgan says. “When I got back out of the military, I kept in the back of my mind that I had to take the `firefighter’s` test, roll the dice, and see what happens. I did, and in 1998 I got called.”
The Dropkick Murphys persevered in McColgan’s absence, recruiting Al Barr, the frontman of street punkers, The Bruisers. They remained friends, and when McColgan returned to music with the Street Dogs, Dropkick members Barr and Ken Casey lent their hands to the first album, with ex-Bruisers bassist Johnny Rioux and guitarist Rob Guidotti joining his band.
Two years later, McColgan took a leave of absence from the fire department to tour in support of Back to the World. In 2006, they supported Rancid, and released the scabrous, Fading American Dream, which shakes its fist at the Bush administration on tracks such as the catchy opener, “Common People,” hardcore-inflected “Sell the Lies,” and the dyspeptic title track, which sounds like Rancid.
The Street Dogs don’t shy away from political rhetoric on their latest album, State of Grace, either. McColgan and his accomplices offer up angry missives like “Rebel Song,” which assails our political system’s corruption, and suggests, “Tear it down, what are you waiting for?” Overall, however, it’s a much more personal album concerned with inspiration as much as invective.
“This album is about the gas that’s in our figurative tank,” McColgan says. “It’s a record that’s looking deep inside of ourselves and asking, ‘Why do we do this? What drives us to do it? Who are the people that meant the most to us, that went by the wayside, and we still think about?’”
There’s plenty of introspection, from the nostalgic “Two Angry Kids,” to McColgan’s odes to his uncle (“Kevin J. O’Toole”) and grandmother (“Elizabeth”), to the album-opening “Mean Fist,” which recalls an incarcerated friend of Rioux’s, “who went the wrong road growing up, and ended up in prison with a lot of regrets,” according to McColgan.
The album hits stores this week on Hellcat, just like that first Dropkick Muphy’s disc, bringing McColgan back to his origins, a full decade later. “Life’s funny,” he admits. “I started there, and here I am back.”
He is proud to be celebrating the album’s release on the Warped Tour, which he says still embodies his passion for things that are “genuine, powerful, poignant, and hard-hitting.”
“Since starting it in ’94, `tour founder` Kevin Lyman has tried to put as many different bands from different genres as humanly possible on the bill,” McColgan gushes. “There’s no such thing as a band everyone likes or a tour everyone likes, that’s not feasible. But Lyman goes above and beyond, trying his hardest to keep the tour punk, to keep it new and relevant.”
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McColgan is not kidding. Every year Warped seems to launch careers of new young bands capturing attention for the first time, playing between sets from their better-known peers. Underoath, My Chemical Romance and Panic! At the Disco are just a few of the acts who’ve apprenticed on Warped’s smaller stages. Like a flea market, Warped’s sheer informational overload encourages patrons to wander the musical midway open to whatever catches their attention.
While not particularly top-heavy with big name vets, this year’s show isn’t bereft of marquee acts. Rabble-rousing punks Against Me! evolved from their folk-punk beginnings to a bracing anthemic roar on last year’s terrific New Wave. Something Corporate frontman Andrew McMahon’s poppy piano-rock side project, Jack’s Mannequin, is ready to release their second album in September. That’s when The Pink Spiders will put out their third disc, though the bristling power-poppers will feature a new lineup after two-thirds of the band quit last month.
As always, the tour ranges across different genres, from nerdcore rapper MC Chris and live-instrument hip-hoppers Gym Class Heroes to raucous alt-metal rioters The Bronx and Every Time I Die, to the bouncy lovelorn punk-pop of Say Anything and Valencia, to enchanting songstresses Katy Perry and Charlotte Sometimes, and reggae-inflected acts such as Bedouin Soundclash and Aggrolites, not to mention humorous dance-pop dorks, Gil Mantera’s Party Dream. It’s a smorgasbord with no risk of getting bloated. •