Last Saturday, on another brutally cold night in Chicago, I was surprised to see as many men in kilts as I did upon entering the historic Congress Theater, but this was no live performance of Braveheart. No, this was a near sell-out show boasting the Dropkick Murphys, Naked Raygun and Off With Their Heads.

The Parkington Sisters were a very early surprise opener who played not long after the doors opened. To be honest I was kind of worried for the sisters because I didn’t think their mellow sounds were going to go over very well, but the crowd was electric! You could slice the testosterone and bottled-up energy in the air with a knife. This crowd wanted nothing but the Dropkicks and I was afraid they were going to eat these girls alive. Surprisingly enough, they didn’t. The Sisters wielded an impressive display of cello, banjo, violins and guitar as their arsenal, and took turns trying to pump up the crowd, with the crowd thankfully took the any chance to clap along.

Next was Minnesota’s own Off With Their Heads. Not bad, but at the same time nothing ground-breaking or really all that outstanding. 80% of the stage was covered by a curtain that was hiding the huge set up of the Dropkicks, so it had the feel of a high-school talent show. Don’t get me wrong, the crowd loved it and the energy of the band definitely further fueled the crowd there just wasn’t anything special. It was the same late ‘90s, early ‘00s punk that wasn’t bad, it just all sounds the same. Overall, they sounded good and played with the intensity and heart of a headlining act. Maybe it was the cavernous room of the Congress Theater or the limited stage space but something was disconnected and missed the mark with these guys.

Before the next act took the stage, I think the crowd had had enough of the preliminaries. Soccer and hockey-style chanting kept popping up in different spots all over the cavernous theatre. The roar of the crowd that greeted the Chicago’s own post-punk veterans Naked Raygun was no surprise to me. The woefully little-known and underestimated Naked Raygun are one of the forbears of modern day punk, and most punk bands out today were directly influenced by Naked Raygun and classics tunes like “Of of Your Mind,” “Surf Combat,” “Rat Patrol” and “Entrapment” whether they know it or not. Though there was clearly a portion of the crowd that came just to see these guys, most were around the same age or a little younger than my parents but they definitely came to represent and show support. Lead singer Jeff Pezzati strolled around on stage like at rehearsal, calm and casual. Pezzati fervently played to the crowd and was on the barrier between the crowd and the stage any chance he had, letting the crowd sing along with him. Lead guitarist Bill Stevens ripped through riff after riff on a gorgeous flying V and helped the band bring the house down.

Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town” ushered the grand entrance of the Dropkick Murphys, and with bagpipes blazing, the Quincy, Mass. seven-piece dove right into “Hang ‘Em High,” the first new track off of their new CD, Going Out in Style. After a brief musical intro, lead singer Al Barr stormed the stage to the delight of the sweaty, frenzied crowd. “Hang ‘Em High” is the typical high-energy, in-your-face, Irish punk rock that can only be properly delivered by the Dropkick Murphys. As quickly as their set started, the crowd surfers began coming over the rails and into the photo pit and security could barely keep up. The Murphys then plowed through sing-along favorites such as “Barroom Hero” and new songs like the title track off of Going Out in Style. Joined by Nora Parkington of the Parkington Sisters, Ken Casey took over on lead vocals for another raucous sing-along, “The Dirty Glass.” Especially impressive was the ode to disenfranchised workers, “Take ‘Em Down,” which was released early as a package with a commemorative T-shirt, and sold to benefit the displaced workers in Wisconsin. When Ken Casey dedicated the song to those workers and to all of the Union and organized Labor brothers and sisters everywhere, the Congress Theatre shook with a heart burst of yells and fists in the as the crowd pledged their support in solidarity.

As the Dropkicks tore into “Take ‘Em Down,” the show began to feel more like a labor/union rally, and not a concert. At one point a sign reading “Firefighters for Labor” was raised in the front of the stage, leading bagpiper Josh “Scruffy” Wallace to jump off his riser, run to the pit to grab the sign, and then proudly parade it around on stage before propping it up on display in front of him. Before long it was time for one of the Dropkicks biggest hits, when suddenly the banner draped across the back of the stage fell revealing a pirate skull and cross bones as the boys started “Shipping Up to Boston.” Even after 20 songs of raw, non-stop energy and emotion, the crowd still drowned out Barr and Casey. This inspired the band to play even harder, and with smiles on their faces, the show came to an end. During the encore the Dropkicks filled the stage with women from the audience and backstage for the St. Patrick’s Day favorite, “Kiss Me, I’m Shitfaced.” The party favorite was followed with “Skinhead on the MBTA.” The final encore was yet one more anthem for the workers, “Boys on the Docks.” All in all this was one of the most powerful and intense shows I’ve ever been to. –Dennis McLennand, Photos by Dennis McLennand