The Young Dubliners, who play a mix of Celtic music and American rock, may not have had the stratospheric success of their countrymen U2, but their shows can be just as satisfying.
The band formed in the late 1980s shortly after its founder, Keith Roberts, bought a bar in Santa Monica.
The nascent Young Dubliners played just about every Saturday night there, and over the years they’ve become known as one of the hardest working bands in rock.
The name is now a bit of a misnomer — they’re not all so young anymore, and they’re not all Dubliners. Roberts is 53, and only he and bassist Brendan Holmes are Irish.
“It’s me and Brendan and the three Americans,” Roberts said. “Or as I like to say: There’s me and Brendan and three musicians.”
The Young Dubliners are not a cover band that plays traditional Irish ballads.
Sure, they’ve done a traditional album and will cover four or five chestnuts during their set, which typically exceeds 25 songs, but most of the music is original.
Roberts, the band’s lead singer, spoke with The Press Democrat in a phone interview from his Paso Robles home in late January. The following are the highlights.
Q. What’s new with the band?
A. Back in November, we got a life-changing e-mail from our guitar player of 18 years who said he would be retiring at the end of the year. The last time I replaced a musician was 15 years ago, so that was a real shocker.
A friend suggested a kid (Justin Pecot, 34) who had taught my kid guitar. Within about two days he starts sending me videos. He was playing our stuff unbelievably well and looking relaxed as all hell. Our sound really is the fiddle and guitar playing in unison a lot of the time. It’s not something that’s in everybody’s wheelhouse. You’re playing Celtic riffs (on guitar) that are meant for a fiddle.
We really were worried that we weren’t going to find somebody quick enough to do that. We eventually auditioned him, and everybody agreed it was just a miracle that we found this guy.
He’s really phenomenal. It’s given the band a whole new lease on life. We’re all having a lot of fun up there. My horror has turned to jubilation.
Q. You’re known for your powerful vocals — how is your voice holding up?
A. Singing the wrong way was my problem. I just roared my head off for 20 years and eventually woke up one day and it wasn’t there. It was a horrendous panic.
Now I look after my voice; I treat it like a little baby all day long. It’s better to rest and do all my exercises and stay quiet. You want to keep going so you do what you have to do, and I’m quite happy to keep doing that.
Q. What led you to move to the United States?
A. Well, my sister moved here before I did. I came to visit her when I was 17 and spent a month in L.A. I came back when I was 19 — I was going to school to be a journalist and got an internship at PBS.
Then I got into the movie business, set dressing. From that I ended up getting enough money to buy a bar (Fair City in Santa Monica), and we were the band that played every Saturday night.
The opener was the Dave King band, which morphed into Flogging Molly. We all played for three years at my pub in L.A., and all got record deals out of it.
Q. So you’re living proof that spending three years in a pub can lead to a successful career?
A. Yeah, it’s either death or a career.
Q. How do you feel about never having a chart-topping hit?
A. We had so many bands open for us that got huge for a year, then we watched them just disappear.
It was terrible — there was no financial reward because for the first record deal you got no money and then when they had their follow-ups they didn’t go (sell), so there was no money that way either.
We always try to make great albums. We’re not a band that brings out an album every year to have something new on the merch table. We’re a band that works for a long time on these records because this is what’s left after you’re gone.
We’ve tried really hard to maintain an element of relevance, which is really what it’s all about. At festivals, I’m not happy unless people say ours was the best show.
Q. How do you like playing at Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre?
A. There aren’t enough big stars to play places like the Mystic and sell it out every night. They need bands like us, and we need the Mystic. You start to build a relationship with the fans. It’s what keeps us all going.
Q. What do you hope people get from your shows?
A. Our idea is that you come to our show, you leave your worries at the door, and we are going to make you happy for a couple of hours.
We’ve built our reputation on the live show. We love making albums, and we put a lot of time into them, but at the end of the day we’ve always been a live band.
Q. You have a tour of Ireland coming up, right?
A. A few years back I got approached by a travel agent who said: “Would you like to take a group to Ireland?” They said: we’ll sell the tickets and you just book yourself some shows there and we’ll all follow with you.
I thought, why would I do that? That sounds crazy. Well, we ended up getting talked into it, and we’re now going on our tenth one. I bring 100 Americans from all over the country.
We do an acoustic show in a castle and we tell everybody, “You sing, we’ll play.” That’s a great fun night, but that’s the only real touristy thing. The rest are just regular shows in Ireland that the Irish can come to as well.
Q. How are you received in Ireland?
A. Our musicianship and songwriting, we’ve tried to keep a level of integrity to it all, and the Irish really get that. They’re major music lovers.
Even though they can be very critical at first, we won them over. They realized this is genuine. We never ripped anybody off — this is absolutely original.
Q. Do you miss living in Dublin?
A. It’s funny, for years and years and years I thought I was going to go back. I thought I might buy a house and live there.
But Dublin is a big city, and when you’re done with cities as I think happens to a lot of people — it happened to me — I lived in L.A. for years and got sick of it.
I absolutely love growing vegetables and living out in the countryside so there are parts of Ireland where I could see myself living. But America really helped me out and gave me a whole life, so I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
My mom still lives in Ireland. The minute I get home, I feel at home. There are still a load of mates (friends) there. The minute you’re back home you realize, I’m Irish all the way.
(Michael Shapiro is author of “A Sense of Place.” He writes about travel and entertainment for national magazines and The Press Democrat.)