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Tracings: The Young Dubs — changing the world

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Olivia Tracey

Needing a little break from the Hollywood heat, I thought I’d take a brief sojourn at a friend’s Santa Monica apartment, where I lounged lazily on the oceanfront veranda, breathing in the beauty and thinking that life ain’t bad at all.

No doubt The Young Dubliners’ Keith Roberts is thinking the same. No, he’s not lolling here taking in the scenery, but off jamming his way to the big time with his 6-year-old band, The Young Dubliners. I went back to work, if you could call it that, for all of two hours yesterday to meet with the up-and-coming star, relishing my first Earl Grey of the day while he politely passed on what would have been his fifth coffee of the morning. It was only 10 a.m. But believe me, this kid is anything but an interruption to my vacation. He is a total trip, if you’ll pardon the pun.

"I tend to be very animated and chatty" he announced. That, my friends, is the understatement of the century.

Of course, the 31-year-old singer/guitar player is blessed, not just with Mary Jo, his selflessly understanding wife of six years who wholeheartedly supports his lengthy tours away from home, but also blessed with highly accomplished parents. He inherits his hilarious personality from his father, the famous Dublin actor Charlie Roberts, while he owes his singing talent to his mother, Ann O’Dwyer, the first female vocalist ever to be broadcast on RTE. They lived in the South County Dublin Monkstown area in the very tony Belgrave Square "in a flat surrounded by mansions" he laughed, amused by the irony.

In the early years, his father was more than "fond of the drop," he said, and his parents separated when he was about 8, a fact he accepts with more gladness than sadness as he feels that it enabled him to have a good friendship with his dad instead of growing up in a disturbed alcoholic environment. His parents eventually got divorced, 25 years later, through the recent divorce legislation in Ireland, leaving his mother free to marry her longtime boyfriend.

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Not stopping for a breath, Keith then went on to talk about the inhibitions and self-consciousness of his teenage years. "I wish my confidence had come quicker," he mused, remembering his adolescent fight for the courage to wear a bright yellow shirt despite the inevitable slagging from the lads. Then one of them dared to admit that they actually thought it looked good on him, breaking the ice for round two.

The next step was the hair. Despite considering himself a "mousey-haired goofball," it took until age 30, after numerous visits to his older sister Jocelyn in L.A. and his eventual move here more than 10 years ago, before he plucked up the courage to dye it bleached white. He laughed when he remembered his behatted arrival in Dublin airport, as his mother came to meet him with a look of terror on her face. Apparently she uttered various "Sweet Mother of Mercies" and "Jesus, Mary and Josephs" until she whipped off the hat to see his hair, announcing with relief, "Oh, thank God, You’ve still got it."

He’s got it alright, in more ways than one. Keith Roberts has come a long way since his first time on stage in Sallynoggin Comprehensive, age 19, when he didn’t even know he could sing, filling in for the lead singer of "Too Close For Comfort." "All of a sudden a few girls liked me, instead of one every five years," he joked.

Originally planning a career in journalism, he completed a social science degree in UCD, where he recalls only six guys and 96 women in the class, along with many wild parties in Ranelagh. However, at age 17, he paid his first visit to his sister in L.A. and as the plane cruised down toward LAX and he saw all those private backyard swimming pools, he knew he was smitten. "The only pools I knew were the local baths on a rainy day" he said. And so he sat every Sunday with his buddies, discussing their American dreams over cigarettes on the wall outside Monkstown church, popping back in for communion and, hopefully, the blessing that went with it.

Well, no doubt it worked, and so as planned, in 1989, at age 21, he moved to Los Angeles. He started off with a one-year journalistic internship at KCET, which he hated, as well as driving shuttles to and from the airport to support himself. "It was great," he told me, rejoicing at the ready audience "trapped" in each shuttle, listening to all his funny stories in his effort to get tips. "It cost them $10 to get in, $20 to get out," he said with that typical Dublin wit, at which point I almost choked with laughter on my last precious drops of tea.

Then, in the early 1990s, he moved on with his real love: music, starting as a duo on the Irish pub scene with his friend Paul O’Toole, then adding musicians along the way to jam with them. Paul later left for personal reasons. In the meantime, his other Dublin friend, Brendan Holmes, joined as the bass player, and the pair hooked up with four Americans of various ethnicities and backgrounds, welcoming the eclectic mix to their music and forming what became "The Young Dubliners."

In 1993, they signed with Scotti Brothers’ record label and made their first album, "Rocky Road." Next came "Breathe" in ’95, which gave them their break, featuring a number of hit singles and putting them on the road as a national touring band, followed by "Alive Alive Oh" in February ’98. All three albums sold out (50,000 copies) and are becoming collectors items, with the band now hoping to produce their next album on a major label.

They have toured the States tirelessly, playing to between 1,000 and 3,000 people in such prime venues as New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington and San Francisco, along with their 26th sellout performance on Sunset Boulevard’s very happening House of Blues. Further coups include the Guinness Fleadh, where they shared top billing with Van Morrison and Elvis Costello, Major Reardon’s Los Angeles City’s opening session last May, a "Late Late Show" interview/performance with Gay Byrne, and Santa Monica’s pier gig, where they drew a record-breaking 11,000 people. They have appeared on "Donny & Marie," KTLA News, "Brooklyn South," Comedy Central’s V, Extra, Mario Puzzo’s "The Last Don" and a national 60-second radio commercial for Harp featuring their hit "Change the World," which, hopefully, will enjoy a rerun for their upcoming two-month tour. For tour dates and details, log on to their website (www.dubs@youngdubs.com) where you can also get their merchandise.

"I have to split, love," he said with that delightful Dublin term of endearment, his energy still booming as he runs off to yet another of the 10 media interviews lined up over two days. But Keith is not complaining, clearly enjoying the buzz and the recognition for doing what he loves to do, and doing it very well indeed.

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