Cleveland got its first snow of the season after Leo and Anto played Beachland Ballroom in October. But the Saw Doctors superstars ‘ return to the North Coast was marked by decidedly milder temps, and the sun was shining over Kamms Corners as the itinerant musicians strode into P.J. McIntyre’s with their gear late Tuesday afternoon.
Over twenty-five years have passed since Anthony “Anto” Thistlethwaite and Leo Moran first joined forces, with the sax-playing cofounder of The Waterboys sitting in at a Saw Doctors gig near Leo’s County Galway home in 1988. To say the collaboration was prosperous would be an understatement; The Waterboys became legends in short order, and The Saw Docs notched Ireland’s bestselling single ever with “I Useta Love Her.” A string of other hits followed, including Irish highway anthem “N-17”—to which Anto contributed one of his trademark sax solos. By the mid-2000s the English-born Thistlethwaite was a full-time Doctor himself, having stepped into the bass slot vacated by Pearse Doherty.
In contrast to the Doctors’ raucous rock road trips, however, Leo and Anto’s current two-man troubadour project finds the friends entertaining much smaller crowds. Moran’s temporarily swapped his signature Gretsch White Falcon electric guitar for a brown acoustic, and Thistlethwaite has mothballed his bass in favor of his sax, mandolin, and harmonicas. The songs may lack Davy Carton’s vocal and rhythm guitar, Rickie O’Neill’s muscular drums, and Kevin Duffy’s keyboards but nevertheless retain their elegance (and oomph). Indeed, some of the folk ditties and ballads benefit from their coffeehouse makeovers.
The lads are out supporting their latest album, Pushin’ It, which—like its big brother CD, last year’s Flyin’ It—contains “unplugged” versions of select Saw Doctors hits, along with a few originals and collaborations (particularly with former Saw Doc Padraig Stevens). The pair seems to genuinely enjoy zipping along the East Coast and regaling fans in town halls and corner pubs with quaint neighborhood names like Kiki’s House, Jimmy’s Bar, and Jammin’ Java. If the laughter, merriment, and overall convivial vibe generated at the shows are any indication, the outing’s a smashing success.
Despite selling out well in advance, Tuesday’s gig had a wonderful hush-hush air about it, as if everyone in attendance were in on a little West Park secret: Irish rock royalty here tonight, up close and personal! Adding to this was the concert’s relocation from PJ’s main stage to Bridgie Ned’s Party Room in the pub basement, where rows of folding chairs arced around a designated performance area on the floor, awaiting Leo and Anto’s guests. No elevated risers, no fancy light show. Just sublime songs performed by talented pretense-free musicians, standing near eye-level with spectators, strumming away and sharing a few precious moments.
“World of Good” proved an inspired opener, prepping guests for two hours of relaxed-but-upbeat tune-smithing. “Villains” offered musical commentary on how today’s bad guys don’t necessarily wear black—Leo joked that nuns were the “terrorists” of his childhood—and saw the guys weave in a snippet of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”
Bespectacled Leo was the evening’s funnyman, prefacing songs with funny anecdotes and jesting in between, with Anto his (somewhat) straight-laced foil. Moran referred to their act as the “living embodiment of the Anglo-Irish agreement,” setting up something of a theme for the night (Irish President Michael D. Higgins vs. The Queen); he suspected his deceased aunt was probably up in heaven somewhere, conflicted over his union with an English musician. Two boxes bearing CDs rested on a ledge behind the guys, Sharpie marker arrows denoting “Anto: English” and “Leo: Irish.” Moran appraised the graffiti-markered cartons as the pinnacle of their concert’s “big production value…in the style of our compatriots in U2!”
Leo played finger-style guitar on “Friday Town,” plucking the strings sans pick while Anto graced the measures with bright mando chords and flourishes. Moran utilized a capo most of the night, repositioning on the neck of his guitar as needed, giving his strings a trebly shimmer jangle that complemented Anto’s mando and sax quite nicely.
Saw Doctors ballad “Wake Up Sleeping” was even more poignant in PJ’s quiet, dimly-lit confines. Anto fielded lead vocal on “Share the Darkness,” whose aching refrain was picked up and sung back to him by the mesmerized onlookers. “Carmel Mannion’s Son” joked about Irish Catholic girls and their boys—and had Anto architect a bit of “surround sound” saxophone by literally circling the room during his horn solo.
“Every word of that is true!” Leo told us earlier about the song, whose lyrics speak as much to Niall Barrett and his “Lake of Milk” domicile as his dear mum.
“That’s the way people are referred to, by their mother’s maiden name. It’s just a tradition. When you go to school with a girl, it’s hard to get the new name right when you’ve known her for twenty-five years!”
The boys wrapped their first set with a pretty spin on “Exhilarating Sadness” before breaking to mingle with fans and hawk CDs. The intermission also allowed folks to refuel at the bar, which was closed during the show to minimize extraneous noise—and thereby preserve the ambiance. When PJ’s proprietor Pat Campbell called folks back for the second act, he quipped that that party room had been renamed “PJ’s Speakeasy,” in deference to an earlier joke by Leo.
“Red Cortina” and “Same Aul Town” became sing-alongs in short order: “Your singing is making miserable sound lovely,” said Leo. The vivacious “Dead Butt” was—in Leo’s words—the greatest song ever written about handball…done in the style of Elvis. True to form, Moran copped the King’s swivel-hips and snarl for the twelve-bar stomper before dialing back somewhat on the Padraig Stevens-penned “Tuam Beat.”
“Won’t Go on Facebook Anymore” was a hilarious musical gag about cyber-stalking and 21st century love under surveillance. “Chips” chronicled a rejected Romeo’s substitution of sex with “fast food late at night,” and “Tommy K” paid homage to the late Irish disc jockey who thwarted authority by spinning records for kids in dance halls. “Maroon and White” and “Green and Red of Mayo” celebrated the Irish counties of Galway and Mayo, respectively—and prompted certain PJs ticketholders to voice their affiliations with each.
The lighthearted “Credit Union” touted small-town business relationships and handshakes over big banks, corporate greed, and dehumanizing paperwork. Leo explained the song’s genesis to us at sound-check.
“The credit union was sponsoring the Western Alzheimer’s Day Out, and the local radio station asked if I’d come up and sing a couple songs. I didn’t know what I was going to do, so Padraig Stevens suggested writing a new song for the occasion.”
“It works every night,” Leo laughed. “ I just got lucky!”
Watch the official video for “Credit Union” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=haFv-ZPeonE
Anto took another turn at the mic during the encore, leading a locomotive “whoo-whoo” chant for The Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues.” And for closing number “Clare Island,” Leo deliberately held back so fans to chime in, which they did; the brio was such that Moran could’ve stopped singing entirely, leaving unsuspecting drinkers and diners upstairs to wonder at the revelry emanating from under their feet.
Both Leo and Anto seem pleased with the results of their latest adventure.
“It turned out we were idle, we were bored,” the guitarist elaborated pre-show.
“We love playing and being busy, so this was our solution to it! We didn’t know if we’d be into it. We had to jump in at the deep end. But the shows are working. They’re very imperfect shows, and they’re obviously scaled-down, but they work! There’s a lot more time to just relax and talk to people, just go with the flow of it.”
“With the big rock shows there’re a lot of people just waiting for the next song to happen, in the audience and onstage,” Leo reflected. “There’s an urgency about it. With our shows now, they’re more intense for us. It’s just the two of us, so there’s no let-up!”
Anto told the audience he’s accepting title suggestions for a prospective third disc. “So far, Shovelin’ It is the frontrunner,” he reported.
The remainder of the U.S. tour will traipse the boys through Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, West Peori, St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh in May and June. Leo and Anto will be touring the U.K. this summer.
Pushin’ It is only available only at shows, but Flyin’ It is for sale now in the Store section of The Saw Doctors website www.sawdoctors.com , where most Saw Doctors titles are purchase-ready at bargain prices.