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Irish as the day is long

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Dublin native Keith Roberts, pictured in a 1995 Aspen concert, founded the Young Dubliners in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. (Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times Weekly)
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Keith Roberts hardly needs a reminder of where he comes from. His accent, his gift for loquaciousness, and his leadership in a band called the Young Dubliners testify that, when Roberts first crossed the Atlantic some 20 years ago, he didn’t leave his native Ireland too far behind.

Roberts can still be surprised at moments to realize just how much his homeland means to him. Such an instance came two weeks ago when Glen Hansard, a fellow Dublin musician whom Roberts calls just an acquaintance, performed the song “Falling Slowly” at the Academy Awards ceremony. Hansard, who performed the song in the lauded film “Once,” went on to win the Oscar for Best Song. Roberts was in Los Angeles, where he has lived since the late ’80s, but it was as if he had never left the Emerald Isle.

“When they did the song, I was nearly crying ” to see someone who was so worthy of this,” said the 43-year-old Roberts, from a tour stop in Milwaukee. “But when he won, it was like winning the World Cup. Irish people, no matter how tough they are, they were bawling their eyes out. You feel something like that and your heritage just comes out. You’re always Irish first. It’s something you always carry with you, that pride and love. I meet people from Ireland who have been here longer than I have, and they’re still as Irish as the day they left.”



However, Roberts, who appears with his Los Angeles-based quintet the Young Dubliners on Wednesday, March 12, at Belly Up Aspen, could not wait to leave Ireland. During his college years as a journalism student in Dublin, Roberts kept his hand in music and fronted a succession of bands. None of them, he says, were very good nor particularly popular; they were “your typical garage things, blowing out mum’s eardrums.” But the last of those bands ” which also featured Brendan Holmes, who would become, and remains, the Young Dubs’ bassist ” was beginning to catch on. But it was not enough to keep Roberts home. “I was so determined to get to America,” he said.

There was not a whole lot of Irishness to the early part of his tenure in the States. Roberts, whose parents were in the TV business, worked at a public TV station for a spell. He then moved into production work on movie sets.




The Irish factor surfaced when Roberts and fellow Dublin native Paul O’Toole would get together in a Santa Monica pub, the Irish Rover, to play some acoustic tunes. What came out of the duo had an inevitable Celtic twist, usually filtered through such Irish rock acts as the Pogues and even U2. Roberts discovered he liked taverns better than newsrooms and music more than journalism, and he opened his own Santa Monica bar, Fair City, A Dublin Pub. The main attraction at Fair City became Roberts’ band, which grew in size and was tagged with the name, the Young Dubliners. The group traveled around California some, and the response convinced Roberts that the band had more of a future than the bar business. In the mid-’90s, he sold Fair City to concentrate on the Young Dubs.

Over seven albums and a dozen years of hard-core touring, Roberts’ music never lost its accent. The Young Dubliners have had much turnover in their membership; the Irish elements ” fiddles and pipes, Roberts’ voice, and a frequent dip into traditional repertoire like “Rocky Road to Dublin” and “Foggy Dew” ” have been constants.

If anything, the Young Dubliners have become even more Irish, at least on CD. Last year the band released “With All Due Respect: The Irish Sessions,” which featured virtually all old, familiar tunes. Familiar, that is, to anyone who, like Roberts, spent a fair amount of his childhood in Dublin pubs. Several of the songs, like the opening “Follow Me to Carlow” and “Rock Road to Dublin,” had been part of the band’s repertoire for years; others, Roberts and his mates had to learn.

“I knew them. But I only knew the first verse and the chorus,” said Roberts. “Because that’s all you sang in the pubs. You’d just roar that over and over. It was a real badge of honor if you could sing the second verse in the pub.”

The way Roberts and the band play the songs also indicates a lingering look back at Ireland. At times on recent albums, the Irish influence can be faint. On “With All Due Respect,” it is pronounced. Eric Rigler, who had joined the touring lineup and will appear at the Aspen date, plays uileann pipes and whistles throughout the album. And while the band doesn’t back off the punkish sound it has always had ” especially on the rowdy take on “Weila Weila,” a traditional song about infanticide ” the Irish beats and accents are out front, beginning with the fiddle part by Chas Waltz that opens the album.

Roberts says that he has never tried to make the Young Dubliners sound particularly Irish. In the current lineup, only Roberts and Holmes are Irish-born; the rest are Americans. And Roberts has always welcomed the other players to bring in their influences and ideas, so that the music doesn’t become a knockoff of what American players think of as a Dublin band.

“It’s not me trying to shove it down anybody’s throat,” he said. “It’s not me trying to Irish-ify anything. Then it becomes contrived.”

Roberts actually brings a fairly worldly viewpoint to his song-writing. Lyrically, he says he is as much influenced by his training in journalism as he is by his Irish heritage: “I have a background in journalism, so I end up soaking up a lot of whatever’s going on around me. We’re a reflection of our surroundings.”

“It’s the End,” a song from the band’s forthcoming, almost completed CD, is an interesting example of Roberts’ brand of mixing his upbringing and present circumstances. The song is about the killings in Darfur. But he sings it, he says, “as if I were in Ireland in the 1840s, singing about the potato famine.” Another track on the new album, “Touch the Sky,” Roberts describes as Big Country-meets-U2, and the big Irish trademark on the song is the fiddle riff by Chas Waltz ” a product of Kansas City.

Over his two decades as an American, and his 15 or so years leading the Young Dubliners, Roberts may have lost sight of just how Irish he is, and how strong an attraction the Irish streak in his music can be. The band had been contemplating an album of all Irish songs for years. It was meant to be a thank-you to past Irish writers and musicians. Roberts planned on selling it only at concerts. But when the band’s record label, 429 Records, which also handles Joan Armatrading, Steve Forbert and Dr. John, heard of the project, they jumped onboard. “With All Due Respect” was released February 2007, and the band unexpectedly ended up touring behind it for most of a year.

“It’s the little album that could,” said Roberts, adding that the album was recorded in a brief 17 days. “We continue to play these songs in concert because they have worked their way into our hearts. We can’t seem to play a gig without playing ‘I’ll Tell Me Ma,’ which we just fell in love with.”

The Young Dubliners toyed with the idea of adding “Volume 1” to the title of “With All Due Respect.” Roberts ultimately decided against it, figuring that if the band never got around to making a follow-up, it would look like the Irish-American version of Guns n’ Roses, which has been promising to deliver its “Chinese Democracy” album since the ’90s.

Roberts never takes for granted that any album he gets it in his mind will actually be completed. A perfectionist, he began work on the new Young Dubs CD, as yet untitled, in November. It was supposed to have been finished before the current tour.

Roberts says he always gets overwhelmed when he embarks on a recording project, and this time was no different. His mother, visiting from Ireland, fell down the back steps to Roberts’ house. Roberts tried to catch her and badly damaged his leg in the process. The final touches on the album will have to wait till after the tour, which takes them from Colorado to California (for the headlining slot at San Diego’s Shamrocker, in front of some 12,000 people, next Monday, March 17 ” St. Patrick’s Day), back to Colorado (for Vail’s Streetbeat on March 19), and then to Ireland and Denmark.

“You’ll hear a couple of lines on the new album where you’ll say, ‘Where the hell did that come from?'” predicted Roberts. “It’s probably Vicodins. Because I took a lot of them.”

stewart@aspentimes.com