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Young Dubliners, Up for a Good Fight

By Michael Deeds
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page N12

It's not easy being an Irish band. Sure, everybody wants to buy you a jigger of Jameson at gigs. But what good is a free bar tab if it comes at the expense of respect as a serious musician? Americans often view Celtic rockers as guitar-toting leprechauns: Concerts are an excuse for the audience to drink excessively and sweat profusely, albums are an irrelevant byproduct that receive only modest fan consideration, and radio won't touch you with a 10-foot tin whistle.

So why and how -- after 11 hard-drinking, hard-touring years and six largely forgotten CDs -- do the Young Dubliners sound so crazy-happy on "Real World," their gloriously rockin' new album? So fulfilled? So magically delicious?

With "Real World," the Young Dubliners have crafted a rousing, freewheeling Celtic-rock experience that embraces their Irishness. (David Safian)

All cliches aside, "Real World" might finally be the commercial gold at the end of the rainbow for this criminally underappreciated rock band. The key: Founder-singer-guitarist Keith Roberts and his group stopped trying to please radio programmers. The jig is up. Or, actually, the opposite of that. After clumsily crowbarring traditional-sounding Celtic melodies into previous so-called modern rock albums, the Dubs brought in Irish producer Tim Boland and just went for it. They crafted an exceptionally charged, freewheeling Celtic-rock experience. They're Irish! They're not ashamed! (Trivia: Roberts and bassist Brendan Holmes are the Los Angeles band's only members actually from Ireland.)

The uplifting first single, "Touch the Sky," soars to the point of being stratospheric. Hired gun Eric Rigler (of "Titanic" and "Braveheart" fame) infuses the song with uilleann pipes before Roberts sums up the Dubs' determination: "I'd like to think we deserve a beginning / I'd like to think that we fight because we're winning / Reach up so high / Never touch the sky." By the time violinist-keyboardist Chas Waltz leads a rousing, fist-waving backing roar during the chorus -- "Hey! Hey! Hey!" -- your hand has balled into a fist. You've subconsciously joined the good fight.

Nearly every song on "Real World" is like that. The Dubs' newfound discovery of backing vocals supercharges the feel-good vibe: "Say It's So" is another terrific, involving anthem, and "OK," a rollicking live favorite, sounds like a sassy Sex Pistols snarler . . . with violin.

But the Young Dubliners are much more than Flogging Molly for grown-ups. Accessible and inviting, the Dubs remain squarely in the "adult alternative" category. Plaintive vocal harmonies and elegant, Coldplay-cool guitar drives "Please." Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson drops in to toot his flute on the instrumental "Banshee." On "Evermore," Roberts sings a softie for his infant son, pulling it off beautifully. It's one big triumph.

After years of abusing his vocal cords, Roberts was forced to have node-removal surgery during recording. But that may have been a blessing in disguise: Rather than knocking out this disc in typical Young Dubs fashion -- four weeks, tops -- the group took five months to finish. It shows.

The Dubs sound like it felt good just to be themselves. You hear it in their voices, guitars, violins and whistles. And when you're spilling a pint and singing along to the traditional pub tune "Waxies Dargle," you'll feel the same relaxed euphoria.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company