Young Dubliners find success in blending traditional Celtic music with rock ‘n’ roll

In a few days, he’ll be tending to his sorely missed garden, planting vegetables, cultivating new life from old soil.

Keith Roberts has been on the road since early February, and he’s looking forward to getting back to work on his land in rural California.

"I’ll be putting the boots on and getting stuck in the farmer side of me," the singer/guitarist for Celtic rockers the Young Dubliners says more than a little wistfully, "and drinking loads of wine and trying to write songs."

In a way, Roberts’ agrarian side mirrors his musical means of production: Both involve his excavating plenty of roots, albeit of a different variety.

As co-founder of the Young Dubliners, Roberts has long spiked traditional Celtic music with a hard-swinging rock ‘n’ roll energy.

"That’s what we set out to do, to blend the two loves of both sides of music and to see if other people felt the same way, that it was OK to rock up the Irish music and that it was also OK to blend in less traditional rock instruments," Robert says, speaking from his mother’s home in his native Dublin. "Obviously there were bands that were influencing us, like The Pogues and Big Country, Thin Lizzy and Horslips before that. There were definitely bands who’d used electric guitars to play Celtic-style riffs. But, we were doing it with our original stuff with a mixture of Americans and Irish (members), sort of discovering each other’s music as it went along."

Roberts first came to America in the mid-’80s to pursue a career in journalism, interning at PBS for a year.

"That was about enough to knock it out of me," Roberts says of his journalism aspirations with a hearty chuckle.

From there, he worked as a set dresser in the film industry before eventually purchasing a bar in Santa Monica, Calif., the Irish Rover, where he performed with fellow Dublin native Paul O’Toole in the house band on Saturday nights.

From these raucous weekend jams, the Young Dubliners would be born, almost by accident.

"To me, it was just great to see the bar packed every Saturday night, and we were having a blast," Roberts says. "I knew we were getting a great reaction in L.A., but I still can’t honestly say that I was thinking about taking it beyond that. And then all of a sudden we got a record deal. The record came out, and when we got airplay around America, I was sort of like, ‘You’re joking me? This is actually working?’ That’s when we got rid of the bar and hit the road."

Two decades later, they’ve hardly left the road since.

In a way, all of this is practically Roberts’ birthright.

Both his parents were in the entertainment business, with his dad working as a stage manager and his actress mother performing in musicals.

"It was inevitable that it would in the kids’ blood," Roberts says of his family’s pedigree in the arts. "I felt happiest when I was doing music."

Roberts fondly recalls watching the British live music show "Top of the Pops" as a kid, becoming especially thrilled when an Irish band was showcased.

"It was like watching the World Cup. We went bananas," Roberts recalls of seeing bands from his home country on the program. "When Boomtown Rats got on there, that was when I first really remember going mad. It was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a band from my town, right now.’ And then right on the heels of the Boomtown Rats came U2, and that blew it wide open."

In the years that would follow, the Young Dubs would make their impact as well, emerging as an influential act in the rocking up of Irish music tropes over the course of seven studio albums, the most recent of which was 2009’s particularly invigorated "Saints and Sinners."

It’s been a long journey, which a long stroll this very morning helped Roberts put in perspective.

"Today, I took a walk down by the Dun Laoghaire pier, which is where I grew up. Just seeing all the places and how it’s changed, it does make you reflect, ‘What have I been doing since I last saw this?’ ” Roberts says. "In a way, it would have been nice had the band had some massive success to where we were all gazillionaires now and could relax and not have to be on the road.

"But, I realized today, that we managed to pull something off that most people never get a chance to do," he continues, "and that’s make a career out of something that I would’ve done for nothin’."

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

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