March 15th, 2012 | Published in Interviews
By Pete Roche
They hail from the provincial County Galway town of Tuam (pronounced chew ‘em) in West Ireland. They’re named for the journeymen who used to travel 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 touring schedule is just as rigorous as U2s and their followers just as ardent.
And while their music might be described as blue-collar rock and roll, the Saw Doctors can’t help if their songs always pack a little bit o’ green.
Formed in 1986 by singer Davy Carton and guitarist Leo Moran, the band packed pubs with a rootsy blend of Springsteen-like working class rock that accommodated traditional Celtic instrumentation, and whose themes embraced the musicians’ humble Catholic upbringings. The Waterboys witnessed the Saw Doctors magic early on, giving the lads a support slot on their month-long tour of 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 (and getting great results), the Doctors kept things simple on If This Is Rock and Roll, I Want My Old Job Back, never straying far from the Chuck Berry / Bill Haley-styled rock they group on. Carton and Moran also proved capable balladeers; the disc yielded no less than three solid sonic valentines in “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 on a coveted slot 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 and Same Oul’ Town featured terrific new tunes (“Green and Red of Mayo,” “Macnas Parade,” “Clare Island,” “Hay Wrap”)—but it was the Saw Doctors’ spirited live performances of the material that cultivated its rapidly-growing fan base. Few groups have benefitted more from positive word-of-mouth, and in 1997 the compilation Sing a Powerful Song helped Saw Doctors converts play catch-up.
The lineup began shifting 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 gigging with the Doctors on saxophone. Kevin Duffy played keys. Eimhin Craddock served as the band’s timekeeper up until this year, when 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 listeners up to date prior to 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 visit in the summer, too. The Cleveland Sound caught up with Leo Moran by telephone last week to discuss the band’s latest activities and recent single—a remake of Petula Clark’s classic “Downtown.” The band’s bespectacled, Gretsch guitar-pluckin’ spokesperson said the tour’s going well so far, and that the boys are eager to hit the Lake Erie shore once again after the St. Paddy’s holiday.
THE CLEVELAND SOUND: Hey, Leo! Welcome back to the United States! So you’re in Orlando now….
LEO MORAN: Yeah, we had a nice sunshine start to the tour. But we know enough to not be expecting the same for the rest of it. We’re not going to rest on our laurels and think the whole country’s going to be like Florida.
TCS: The winter weather’s actually been great in Cleveland this year, so we can’t complain! Hopefully it’ll stay nice for your trip through town next week. Now, you’re on the road with a new drummer, Rickie O’Neill, who’s already played big shows with you at Glasgow Barrowlands and The Machester Apollo in December. How was the transition from Eimhin to Rickie?
LEO: Well, we’re very lucky because it hasn’t changed things much at all. Eimhin took him aside a couple months before he joined up and went over all the stuff with him. He’s a really fast learner and a fabulous drummer, so we’ve had an absolutely smooth transition! We didn’t have to rearrange anything. It was strange!
TCS: Is there any hazing going on? Any practical jokes on the new guy?
LEO: No, no—none of that! But that’s an idea! But it’s fabulous because he’s such a lovely person. It’s his first trip to the States, and it’s always nice to have fresh eyes and ears on the bus as well.
TCS: Over the holidays the Saw Doctors had another huge hit in Ireland with your cover of Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” What was it like working on the track with her, remaking a nearly fifty year-old pop classic?
LEO: Well, we booked a studio in London and met her. But she didn’t have much time; she’s a busy lady! We just had the one evening, really, to get the key of the song and the essential bits done with Petula. It was nerve-wracking, it was exciting. It was an amazing privilege to be working with a global legend like Petula Clark. A wonderful experience. And it’s proven to be a song that people love and that makes ‘em feel good. We also met Tony Hatch, the writer—and he thought it was great. So that was a big endorsement for us, as well!
TCS: You’d already been playing the song live for a while, no? It’s definitely a feel-good kind of song.
LEO: Yeah, and that’s what we noticed. That’s how it came about. We have the song “Hay Wrap,” and sometimes we’ll insert the verse and chorus a different song in the middle. Then one night we did “Downtown,” and you could see it was universally loved. People sang along, everything.
TCS: Any progress on a new Saw Doctors album? Your last record, Further Adventures of the Saw Doctors, just recently came out in the States but it’s been out for almost two years.
LEO: Oh, we have to hold our hands up there now and say we haven’t been working very well at getting the new songs together! We usually do our recording between January and February, but we just didn’t get around to it this year. We planned some time for April, like three days, to get some stuff together in the studio. So we’ll take it from there. It’s always a challenge, but also very satisfying for us, when we get a couple songs together that really work.
TCS: Do you have any favorite Saw Doctors songs? Songs you prefer playing more, or they allow you more freedom as a guitarist?
LEO: My favorite is “Same Oul’ Town” simply because of the perception of us as being this good-time, upbeat band. And I think “Same Oul’ Town” goes against that perception as a kind of counterbalance. Not that I don’t love doing the upbeat thing; I just like the idea that we seem to cover a full spectrum.
TCS: The Saw Doctors just passed the twenty-five year mark. Starting out in Galway, did you ever think you’d be around this long, playing to as many people as you do?
LEO: No, no. We had no idea. At first we hoped to release just the one single. We only ever plan like six months ahead. We think it’s like tempting fate to get any further ahead of ourselves than that! But you do have to tempt fate a little, in that you have to book venues…but that’s as far ahead as I like to look.
TCS: You and Davy are the band’s mainstays, but you in particular are the guy who does all the blogging on your website, sharing stories from the road. Recently you mentioned Irish President Michael D. Higgins, and how he’s been so supportive of the arts.
LEO: Yes, it’s always been like that with Michael D. He’s a poet himself, so he knows what it’s like to lay your heart on the line and bury your soul in front of people, and he’s always been a great patron of everybody else’s artistic activity. And he’s a very well-read and educated man. When he goes abroad he represents Ireland brilliantly, because he knows what he’s talking about. So we’re just delighted he’s the President. And he’s not supposed to be too opinionated as a president, because it’s not in the, ah…official rules! But Michael D. won’t worry about that!
TSC: The band plays Northeast Ohio at least once a year, it seems. In recent years you’ve been playing House of Blues. But do you have any memories of old shows at the Irish clubs or festivals? Or maybe shows at the Odeon or Tower City?
LEO: Oh, Cleveland is particularly brilliant for us. I think Tower City brought on a whole new generation of friends and fans. Cleveland is probably our youngest audience in the country, and I suspect Tower City had a big hand in that. It was a family-friendly event and we met a lot of new people. It was one of those affairs where people don’t necessarily come just to hear the band—and those are the crowds that you really need to play. But yeah, when we play in the Cleveland the first six or seven rows are usually teenagers!
The Saw Doctors play House of Blues on Friday, March 23. General admission tickets are $23.50 advance, $26.00 day of show. Reserved balcony seating is $35.00. Local troubadour Chris Allen (Rosavelt, Lonesome Stars, etc.) opens at 9:00pm.