When musicians or bands who have enjoyed as long and varied a career as the Irish rock group Young Dubliners say they “just love” playing in (insert name of ridiculously small town you’ve never heard of in middle-of-nowhere America) you can usually bet they’re just being nice. When Dubliners frontrunner Keith Roberts says he loves Homer and the state of Alaska, he’s not only telling the truth — he’s speaking to a bit of a personal obsession.
“This is the one place in the world that I absolutely love to play,” Roberts said in a phone interview last Thursday.
Roberts and the Dubliners have been making trips to and playing shows in Alaska for years. While they’ve played Fairbanks, Anchorage and cities in between, Roberts said Homer long ago captured his affection and held it, perhaps because its proximity to the ocean mirrors where he grew up in Ireland.
“I always forget a sweater, so you have to go back,” he joked. “I actually love Homer. I’ve loved Homer since the first time we went there.”
The Young Dubliners return to their stomping grounds at the Down East Saloon on Thursday, Feb. 15. Tickets cost $15 and are available at the band’s website.
Roberts admits these trips to Alaska are a bit more for him than the rest of the band. The group plays in the Last Frontier about once a year, whether at a regular gig, the Alaska State Fair in Palmer or the ever-popular Salmonfest in Ninilchik.
“The problem was trying to convince the band that we should be going there as much as we do,” he said.
Each time he comes to the Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea, Roberts takes a drive down Kachemak Drive and out East End Road to the head of the bay. One of the last times the band was here, Roberts said they were able to sample some local cuisine from The Bagel Shop just before catching their flight out.
Roberts has also gotten to know the Kilcher family, since becoming fans of theirs by watching the reality show “The Last Frontier.” Yellow Cabin, a local band featuring Atz Lee Kilcher and his wife, Jane, has opened for the Dubliners in the past and will open for them again on Feb. 15.
The Dubs, as they’ve dubbed themselves, are often described as a Celtic-rock band, but their sound and interests are more varied. It’s part of what’s led them to be such an enduring, if slightly less well known, group in Ireland and abroad, Roberts said. They could have gone for the sound of The Pogues, the Irish-British Celtic punk band that’s been an inspiration to dozens of Irish rocks bands in its wake, but Roberts said they wanted to remain true to themselves.
Some of the band’s songs could be called punk, but others are reminiscent of U2 or American rock songs, and that’s how the Young Dubliners like it.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1988, the band has had a few different makeups throughout the decades. Currently, they’re hitting stages with Brendan Holmes on bass and vocals, Chas Waltz on the violin, keyboard, harp, mandolin and vocals, Dave Ingraham on drums, and newcomer Justin Pecot on guitar and vocals.
Roberts and the lads have watched younger bands — Dropkick Murpheys, Flogging Molly — come up behind them and eventually rocket past them into the punk rock scene. It’s the price of nonconformity.
“But we’ve never gone away,” Roberts said.
Having been around the block so many times, the band has become, in Roberts’ words, “such an easygoing bunch of eejits.”
Part of the band’s evolution has involved getting farther and farther from a place where its members care about exposure, radio play and record deals. Their most recent album, “9,” was produced completely independent of a record label with the help of donations from fans.
“We just knew there was nothing a label could do that we couldn’t, except give us the money to make the record,” Roberts said.
Roberts said the band wanted to get away from the cycle of producing a new album every year or two, wanting to wait until the juices and experiences were actually flowing, “because it’s forever.”
“Once you do an album, that’s your legacy,” he said.
The Dubliners also went through a major change recently. Their longtime guitarist Bob Boulding announced his retirement last November, which brought on the search for new member Pecot. It was the first time a band member had changed in 15 years, Roberts said.
Pecot has played one show with the band already and is still learning songs in preparation for touring, something he’s never done. A teacher, Pecot has the ability to learn quickly himself, Roberts said.
“Justin’s got a very similar style and a very similar work ethic,” he said.
Alaska will be Pecot’s next stop before embarking on a tour that ends in Florida before hopping back across the pond to Ireland. It’s a stop Roberts is grateful for.
Just last summer, when the Dubliners were in Alaska playing at The Loon in Fairbanks with Rusted Root, Roberts snuck off to do one inherently Alaskan thing: fish. It was Saturday the same week as Salmonfest in early August, and the band had to be in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Rather than fly home Sunday with his bandmates for a night in his own bed, Roberts put them on a plane, “because I know that that week was the week that the reds were running.” Roberts borrowed a friend’s truck, drove down to Kenai and hopped in anther friend’s boat, and fished for salmon until the last possible minute before he had to drive back up to Anchorage to catch his flight to Philidelpiha.
It’s an anecdote that shows how Roberts feels about the 49th state, a feeling he says is often reciprocated.
“I think Alaskans appreciate any bands that will come up there, and if you happen to have an accord with them, then they’re friends for life,” he said.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.