It’s not news to their fans, but one of the best-kept commercial secrets are the Los Angeles-based Young Dubliners, a group of Irish and American rockers led by singer Keith Roberts.
“There’s kind of a buzz, or whatever you call it,” Roberts said during a recent tour stop, “where people are aware, they know who we are. They’re just not sure exactly what we are.”
Their Cargo album, “Alive, alive ‘o” (released Feb. 10), captures the seven-member band’s tight live show, with one new studio track, overseen by producer-engineer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Bush, Breeders). It may not become a million-seller, but with a fervent following, an active Web site and loads of tour dates across the United States, the luck of the Irish is bound to catch up with them.
“This is a chance for us to boost it up to another level,” Roberts said of the album and the extensive tour. “That’s the shock for us, without the huge push from a huge record company, how many places we’re playing. We’re getting some killer shows, like the House of Blues (in Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day). It’s a sign that the people, the country, have always loved to hear something unique. Commercial radio hasn’t always necessarily represented the people, as we all know.”
The Young Dubliners are the result of Los Angeles’ melting pot, stirred by the Irish-born Roberts with Randy Woolford (guitar), Jon Mattox (drums), Brendan Holmes (bass), Jeff Dellisanti (saxophone/organ/flute) and Mark Epting (violin/mandolin).
“I was always in bands, but I had a degree in journalism, and that’s why I came here,” said Roberts, who moved to Los Angeles in 1987. “Music kept pulling me back in and eventually I realized that was what I really wanted to do. There was no point denying it anymore.
“At first, we were a jam band. We were playing away in the Irish pub scene and people would come in and sit in with us and play various instruments. Slowly but surely, we got to know who was worth sticking around and they got an appreciation for what we were doing and we got to enjoy what they added to it.
“Before we knew it, it was a full rock band writing its own songs. That’s when it hit us: Maybe we should try to get a deal. That was totally after the thought. Originally, it was just a fun thing for the weekends, get free booze and have a laugh.”
Above all, Roberts wanted the Young Dubliners to avoid the pitfalls associated with Irish-American groups.
“We’re a band that’s heavily influenced by the Irish connection because of me, because I’m one of the chief songwriters and I’m the band leader,” he said, “but we don’t like to class ourselves as an Irish band. It’s extremely stereotypical, and people will generally presume you’re going to sound a certain way. Whereas with U2, they’re a band from Ireland; they aren’t an Irish band.
“That’s how we like to see ourselves; we’re a band from Ireland and America and our sound is a blend of those two cultures. That’s how we’d like to be seen, not as the kings of the Irish pub circuit.”
The Young Dubliners help fill a void left by the early-’90s breakup of The Waterboys. On “Alive, alive ‘o,” the Dubs – as fans call them – pay tribute to Mike Scott’s Celtic, rock hybrid with a vibrant cover version of “Fisherman’s Blues.”
“He’s been an influence on me for quite a while,” Roberts said. “I met Mike a while back. He’s a concept kind of guy. When he first kicked off, I loved the early Waterboys. I loved the big music, ‘The Whole of the Moon’ and all that. Then he got into the whole Celtic thing, it hit me: Wait a minute, the sound of one of my favorite musicians is mixed in with my background of cultural music. It was brilliant.
“We’ve been doing ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ for a long time, so we decided to throw it on there as a nod to their fans and say, ‘You home people, come on home. Come to poppa.’ “