Their music may be blue-collar rock and roll, but The Saw Doctors can’t help it if their songs always pack a little bit o’ green.
Hailing from the provincial County Galway town of Tuam (pronounced chew ‘em) in West Ireland, The Saw Doctors took their name from the journeymen who traveled the countryside repairing farm equipment. Their single “I Useta Love Her” remains Eire’s biggest-selling hit ever. And while they don’t play stadiums or require a fleet of eighteen-wheelers to haul their equipment and stage props, their schedule is just as rigorous as U2’s—and their followers just as ardent.
Founded in 1986 by singer Davy Carton and guitarist Leo Moran, the band packed pubs with its rootsy blend of Springsteen-like working class rock that accommodated traditional Celtic instrumentation and horns, and whose themes embraced the musicians’ humble conservative Catholic upbringings. The Waterboys witnessed the Saw Doctors magic early on and gave the lads a month-long support slot on their tour Great Britain in February 1989. The trip forced bassist Pearse Doherty to ditch school for a while (and cost Carton his job), but exposure beyond the Emerald Isle paid off.
The band recorded its first proper full-length in 1991 with production assistance from The Waterboys’ Mike Scott and chose for its first single “N-17,” a lively, anecdote-laden tune about the stretch of highway linking the villages in their hilly homeland. At a time when Bono and Edge were tinkering with electronic sounds, the Doctors kept things simple on If This Is Rock and Roll, I Want My Old Job Back, never straying from the Chuck Berry / Bill Haley-styled rock they grew up listening to. Carton and Moran also proved capable balladeers; the disc yielded no less than three solid musical valentines with “Only One Girl,” “”It Won’t Be Tonight,” and “Red Cortina.” But it was rambunctious, lusty “Useta Love Her” that ascended the pop charts and landed The Saw Doctors a coveted gig at the August 1990 Feile Festival in Thurles, County Tipperary.
The sudden success precipitated the band’s first trip to the United States (a journey they’ve made eighty times since), where they wasted no time courting the large Irish-American demographic in cities Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland. Subsequent releases All the Way from Tuam, Same Oul’ Town and Songs from Sun Street featured terrific new tunes (“Green and Red of Mayo,” “Macnas Parade,” “Clare Island,” “Hay Wrap”)—but it was The Saw Doctors’ spirited live performances that cultivated its rapidly-growing fan base. Few groups have benefitted more from such positive word-of-mouth, and in 1997 the compilation Sing a Powerful Song helped converts catch-up.
The lineup shifted in the new millennium, with keyboardist Tony Lambert departing after winning the Irish National Lottery. Doherty was replaced by ex-Waterboy Anthony Thistlethwaite, who’d already been playing sax for the band. Kevin Duffy joined on keys, and Eimhin Craddock served as the band’s timekeeper until last year—when 21-year old understudy Rickie O’Neill settled in on drums. The band now has a pair of live albums and DVDs under its belt, and the 2010 hits collection To Win Just Once brought got listeners current with the quintet’s most recent studio effort, Further Adventures of the Saw Doctors.
The affable Irishmen play Ohio almost every winter (typically around St. Patrick’s Day) and occasionally drop by in the summer, too. We caught up with Leo Moran by telephone last week to discuss the band’s new 2-CD greatest hits collection, 25:25, and the forthcoming U.S. tour, which will drop them back at House of Blues on March 21, 2013. The band’s bespectacled, Gretsch guitar-pluckin’ spokesperson said the boys are eager to hit the Erie shore once again after the St. Paddy’s holiday.
Good morning, Leo! You calling from home?
Hello, yes, I’m in County Galway in the west of Ireland!
So you guys are getting ready to fly back over to the States for a Spring tour, starting in Buffalo….
That’s right, we’re leaving on Wednesday.
The tour is a 25th Anniversary celebration for the band, yes?
It sounds like an awful long time when you say it like that! But it doesn’t feel like a long time. I feel like I’m 29 now, so I must have started when I was four! That’s what it feels like to me, anyway.
Also to mark the occasion, The Saw Doctors just released another best-of set, 25:25, with twenty-five songs from as many years on two discs.
Yes! It’s kind of our second best-of album, because we’ve had one out before. And a guy we work with who does the Internet stuff said you know, we should put out a second one because there’s a lot of songs that aren’t in the most obvious stream like the ones on the first best-of. In many ways, I prefer the selection on this one more than some of the more obvious. He picked ‘em, the tracks—and we just agreed with him and said, ‘Yeah that’s good! Well done, and thanks very much!’
The set goes all the way back to your first album and up through 2010 or so, and contains a couple recent tracks that were only released as digital singles before—like your cover of “Downtown” with Petula Clark [who sang the hit in the 1960s]. Could you talk about recording with her?
That was an amazing experience, because first of all we didn’t expect her to agree to be part of it. And when she did it was amazing. We booked a studio in London and went in and started on the backing track, and she was coming in the following day. And when she came, we had to debate what key the song should be in, because her and Davy are kind of opposite singers. So it turned out that when we decided on a key, we had to start all over again and she was right there. So it was a chaotic recording session, but energetic. So we were recording the whole thing from scratch with Petula Clark sitting down with us! But it worked out great. And she’s a complete star. When she walks in the room, she’s got whatever they call it, that star quality about her. A magical woman. And she was 79 at the time, and would have passed for being 50 because she’s sparky, she’s energetic, she’s bright and witty. All those things. Wonderful woman.
You can watch the “Downtown” official video here:
Another interesting track is the a cappella version of “Red Cortina.” This is an older Saw Doctors tune, and an in-concert favorite. What gave you the idea to retool it with just the vocals?
Well, I went to see Joe Jackson years ago, and he did “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” a cappella. He’d obviously wanted to do it, but do it differently. And the idea always stuck with me, because it made you hear the song in a whole new way—fresh instead of tired. And I suppose we’ve adopted a feel for this kind of thing. So we had a go at it, and it worked. A real pleasure to work on that as well—it was an amazing recording experience because you get right into the singing and the melodies from the start. Which isn’t normal for a recording session, because you’re usually figuring out the sound of the drums and the arrangement and all that stuff. And it takes a lot of time, and you lose a lot of energy before you get to the joyful singing part. But when you’re recording a cappella you get right to the singing, so it’s quick and you get right in there. I suppose we should consider doing another song or two like that!
Another favorite show tune is “Tommy K,” about the famous disc jockey. It’s alos included on 25:25. What do you remember most about Tommy?
Yeah, Tommy was a guy we looked up to. And he was a bit of a rebel. At that time, in the Sixties, in Lent, you weren’t allowed to have a disco. Then he got into trouble with the archbishop, so he went off and became a D.J. He lived some of his life in Scandinavia, some in England, and some in God knows where. But he came home in his mid-40s with a whole load of tall stories. He was a complete villain; just a fun kind of character. He got very sick—he had cancer—and the night before he died, a friend of ours named Padraig Stephens said there was a benefit for him in the hotel, so why don’t we write a song about him and we could sing it tonight? Obviously, we didn’t know he was going to pass away by the morning. But we’d managed to get the song written for the benefit, and we lost Tommy the following morning. So it was very appropriate. He left a wonderful legacy of devilment and fun after.
The band even has a little dance that goes with the song—sort of like “YMCA,” only you and Davy do the “TK” with your arms….
We were over in Denver, and this guy was up at the front of the stage. We didn’t know what he was doing, then we realized he was doing the T.K. thing with his arms and legs! So, yeah, that was the guy who gave us the dance. That guy in Colorado. It was a good few years ago. So that became part of the fun of it, as well. Absolutely, and Tommy would be so proud that people are out enjoying themselves.
Then there’s “Michael D Rocking the Dail,” a song which—for those who don’t know—refers to President Michael D. Higgins’ work in Irish parliament, the Dáil Éireann. He’s been a great patron of the arts over the years, yes?
He is, yes. He was always a wonderfully open-minded man. He was my lecturer when I took sociology when I went to university in Galway in the Eighties. And he just opened up my mind to the way things were around the world, and the way people from different cultures did things in different ways. He was always person who supported us. And for him to be voted President of Ireland…we’re just so lucky to have such an intelligent ambassador to send around the world—because anywhere he goes, he’s gonna know what he’s talking about. He’s always great to listen to. If you look up any of his stuff on YouTube, he’s a wonderful speaker. He’s so intelligent and empathetic with the underdog and people that need help. Just a very special person. We were lucky. He became the first Minister of Arts in Ireland back in the Nineties, and he was having a homecoming back to Galway—because that’s where he lives—and we wrote the song for his homecoming. So we became lucky that when he became President, we already had the song in our back pocket for the next occasion! That was lovely.
Your sets are never quite the same. Who decides what songs will be played each night?
It’s a dictatorship! Davy does it! Davy decides. He sings most of the songs, so he orders ‘em up. Not sure what his logic is. Some of them will be ones that are easy to sing after each other in sequence, and with others it’s just important to play different songs every night, a different selection, to keep it interesting for the people playing the songs. So as long as we’re stimulated and happy, it gives people in the audience a much better chance of being happy and stimulated as well!
I always wondered, because occasionally Anthony or someone from The Saw Doctors camp will post a photo of a set list from a given city, and I was curious to know whose handwriting we were looking at…
Yeah, and we’ve actually toyed with the idea of having it as a cheap bit of merchandising. A copy of the set list for a dollar or two on your way out the door! I think people would like that. It’s a nice souvenir, and it’d be unique to each night.
So in addition to yourself and Davy you’ve got Anto on bass and Kevin Duffy on keyboards…
Yeah, Kevin’s been with us for quite a while now.
Then last year you recruited Rickie O’Neill to take over on drums. What’s it like having him aboard?
Yes, just over a year now for Rickie. Last year was his first U.S. tour. He’s an absolutely brilliant drummer and a wonderful person. He’s positive and intelligent and cooperative, and loves trying out new things. We’re lucky to have Rickie on the team.
We’ll be seeing you again in Cleveland on March 21st at House of Blues, which has become your usual venue here in town. Any memories playing here?
We have a wonderful connection with Cleveland over the years. We’ve been going there for quite a while. And the first couple of gigs there were difficult, actually. We did one in this smaller venue in the Flats….
No, it was a much smaller one. Like a café venue. I can’t remember the name of it. But we thought, “Oh God, Cleveland’s going to be difficult.” But then we came back and made lots of friends, and then moved up to The Odeon and the Tower City Ampitheatre by the river. That was all fabulous. House of Blues is a wonderful venue. And one distinction we have in Cleveland is that it’s a very young audience. And that’s wonderful because it gives you a certain energy in the room at nighttime that you don’t get anywhere else.
Word gets around and the college kids come out, or parents take their kids. My own kids enjoy the music. My eight-year old son, his favorite Saw Doctors song is “Taking the Train” from Further Adventures.
Really? See, yeah—that happens in Cleveland more than anywhere else or any other city, would you believe. And it’s lovely for us! We’ve made some really good friends in Cleveland over the years, so we’re always looking forward to coming back.
Tickets for The Saw Doctors at House of Blues on Thursday, March 21st are $20.00 general admission ($25.00 DOS) or $28.00 for reserved balcony seating. Irish trio So Cow—also from County Galway—will open the show at 9:00pm. Click below for details: