Ireland’s Saw Doctors are renowned for creating party-like atmospheres with their raucous blend of green-filtered roots rock. Hailing from Tuam, County Galway, the quintet’s principle players notched a string of singles in their native Eire (“I Useta Lover,” “Bless Me Father,” “N-17”) in the late 80’s and have been bringing their energetic live shows stateside for the better part of twenty-five years.
It’s a testament, then, to just how good the Saw Docs are that any one or two of them can entertain a crowd with just an acoustic guitar or saxophone.
Taking advantage of a break in the Docs’ schedule, the band’s guitarist and bass player returned to America a couple weeks back to embark on a small-hall acoustic tour. Leo Moran and Anthony “Anto” Thistlethwaite aren’t exactly new to touring—but this is the first time either has undertaken a trip abroad that sees them driving their own car (a rental), lugging their own gear, and booking their own hotel rooms.
“We ask for the Bert and Ernie room,” Moran explained Thursday between numbers at The Beachland Tavern.
“A single room with two twin beds. We leave it to you to decide which of us is Bert and which is Ernie.”
A hundred or so folks crowded into the Waterloo pub (braving construction and unseasonably cold temps—for a stripped-down show featuring Saw Doctors music and more. Leo and Anto obliged with two sets of semi-unplugged material from the band’s prodigious catalog, plus a few stories and surprises thrown in for good measure. These up-close-and-personal “living room” shows have been the rage in Ireland for decades. When established U.S. rock bands swap their Les Pauls and Fender Strats for an acoustic-powered coffee house craic, it becomes an event worthy of a VH-1 Special and limited-edition live CD.
Such was the case here, even if no cable outlet rings Moran for rights to a pay-per-view exclusive. Leo and Anto thanked their core Cleveland fans Thursday for years of support by dispensing with the barriers and bridges that ordinarily separate a band from its audience. Accordingly, the two musicians seemed more like old friends swinging back through town than a pair of rock stars “slumming” with VIP ticketholders while on extended retreat.
“Winter’s Just a Dream” was an appropriate opener, given the season’s first snowfall overnight, and had Moran and Thistlethwaite singing sweetly to Leo’s gentle guitar strums. Moran would favor the acoustic all night (even if it wasn’t his prized Gretsch White Falcon), with utility man Thistlethwaite accompanying on sax, electric mandolin, and harmonica.
Moran said the dreamy, forlorn love ballad “Shamtown” was about one of his first crushes back home, Suzanne (whose phone number Leo still remembers). The similarly romantic “Vulnerable” made for a nice follow-up, but the Elvis Presley-styled “Dead Butt” centered on the street sport of handball. “Mercy Gates” dipped back into the Saw Doctors’ mid-90s output. Moran explained how “Carmel Mannion” was inspired by the tendency to refer to old female friends by their maiden names even after they’d wed. “Exhilarating Sadness” brought listeners back to the Saw Doctors’ second album, 1992’s All the Way From Tuam.
Leo and Anto mingled with the Beachland crowd during the break, posing for photos and autographing copies of their (tour-exclusive) CD, Flyin’ It! The second act started strong, with Moran dusting off the lovely “Red Cortina” and “Same Oul’ Town” for acoustic consideration. The guitarist dedicated the protest song “Oil Man” ) written by friend Padraig Stevens) to the Rossport Five, a group of modern-day rebels who risked their safety and freedom by fighting Shell Gas over the installation of pipelines through Kilcommon Parish.
“We aren’t that good at protesting,” said Leo, speaking on behalf of the general public. “We’re good at complaining.”
Football anthem “Maroon and White” turned the topic back to lighter fare. “Not Going’ Back on Facebook Again” amplified the levity with a bit of social network / stalking humor.
By way of introducing his spin on Bob Dylan’s “Most of the Time,” Anto recalled a moment from his days with The Waterboys, when Zimmerman invited him to get high—and came up with unique way of inhaling. Leo strummed his guitar by way of accompanying his buddy’s tale, launching into snippets of hits by Eurythmics (“Sweet Dreams”) and Blondie (“The Tide is High”) on cue.
Moran joked about his father’s dining habits and Sunday afternoon travel routine before picking his way through “Galway and Mayo.” An impromptu number praising credit unions segued into the elegant Saw Doctors standby “Share the Darkness.” A tribute to the famous disc jockey, “Tommy K” was an unexpected foot-stomper in this setting but came off brilliantly. Lump-in-the-throat ballad “Clare Island” was a pitch-perfect closer.
Other funny anecdotes centered on Moran’s time as a busboy in an ice cream shop and Thistlethwaite’s stint as a camp counselor in Perry, Ohio. Leo recalled playing rhythm guitar in his Irish reggae band (wait for it) Too Much for the White Man. He also joked about the smart-arse “corner boys” in his home town—and everyone’s—who make it their business to bust chops.
“Hey, Saw Doctor!” Leo mimicked. “Haven’t had a hit in a while!”
The guys also gave a special shout-out to longtime fan Sis Malley, who was celebrating a birthday.
Youngstown troubadour Demos Papadimas warmed things up earlier with a batch of tunes from his latest indie CD, Wandering Through the Wilderness. Equal parts Dylan, Neil Young, and Stephen Stills, Papadimas turned in a strong set with just his voice, resonator guitar, and harmonicas, adjusting the capo on his guitar neck as needed. “How Long,” “Blackwater Rising,” “Wasted Days,” and “Double Knots” were standouts.