Biography (by Johnny Black) (Courtesy of the Artistís site, 2005)
"We had such a great time at the Royal Albert Hall last year," remembers Saw Doctor Leo Moran. "Mind you, it made it very easy for us to play, knowing that we had such a crackin' finale up our sleeve..."
The finale to the Saw Doctors' celebrated 1998 tour-end gig at London's Royal Albert Hall, was indeed hard to beat. As the show reached a rousing climax, the victorious Galway Football team trooped onto the stage, hoisting the All-Ireland Cup aloft, intensifying the exhilaration of the night to levels rarely experienced - not even at Saw Doctors gigs.
That night, indeed that whole tour, remains vivid in the minds of those lucky enough to catch it, but in the few short months since, The Docs have raised the ante still further. A storming coast-to-coast return to America, one of their strongest markets, left critics like Jim Bessman of USA Today acclaiming their music for its ability to "cut to the heart of and soul of Irish music". At the Fleadh in San Jose they had the crowd "jumping like human pogo-sticks" according to the San Jose Mercury News. And their "fiery celtic-rock performance" proved to be, in the words of the New York Post, "a crowd favourite."
Their recently released and critically-acclaimed fourth album, Songs From Sun Street, has also become The Saw Doctors' first album of all-new material in America. With the ground already prepared by the successful compilation, Sing A Powerful Song, it has assured the loyalty of their rapidly expanding audience.
In March, their song Never Mind The Strangers was the featured music in the Guinness Corporation's American ad campaign for Harp. This summer will see their big screen debut when the band and no less than nine of their songs form the musical backdrop to the new Walter Foote-directed movie The Tavern.
Somewhere in-between all this and recording a fifth album, they're squeezing in another 24 date US tour in May/June including four more American Fleadh headline gigs. In July, the Saw Doctors will headline the Cambridge Folk Festival and play alongside Elvis Costello at the 10th London Fleadh. It begins to look as if 1999 might well be as significant for the Saw Doctors as the night they started, way back in 1988.
The band came together in the small Galway county town of Tuam, when Leo Moran, realising that the potential for Irish reggae was somewhat limited, quit local scenesters Too Much For The White Man, and got together over a pint with like-minded Davy Carton, formerly of punk outfit Blaze X. With a clutch of self-penned rootsy-rock tunes, they started gigging around Galway, not even taking a name until one bar decided to advertise them in a local paper. The name Saw Doctors (travellers who earned money by sharpening saws in old Ireland) was adopted until they could think of something better.
Somehow, the opportunity to think of something better simply never came. By a happy accident, while taking the West of Ireland by storm, they were seen by Waterboys' leader Mike Scott, who immediately asked them to support his band on a UK tour. In September 1989 Scott's name appeared as producer of their debut single N17, a rousing road song as quintessentially Irish as Route 66 is American. N17 paved the way for their first hit I Useta Lover. For a while it was virtually a second national anthem, dominating the No1 slot in Ireland for 9 weeks and becoming that country's biggest-selling single of all time.
A re-release of N17 at the year's end saw it too soar into the Irish charts with ten times platinum sales, quickly followed in the spring of 1991by their debut album If This Is Rock'n'Roll I Want My Old Job Back which gave them their first No1 on the albums chart. Now a wider public was discovering the songwriting strengths of Moran and Carton. Their unswerving commitment is to write and sing about the things they understand which, by extension, are also the things that audiences around the world understand. "From country to punk to pop and rock'n'roll," explains Moran candidly, "We stole all our favourite bits."
In a Saw Doctors' song, you'll listen in vain for the usual swaggering rock cliches about life on the road, drug problems and easy sex. Instead, continuing the tradition of all-time greats from Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, their songs range from bringing in the harvest, to running away to join the army; from the plight of Ireland's unmarried mothers to the effect of strong religion on a nation's youth; from playing gaelic football against a neighbouring village to loving the prettiest girl in town but lacking the courage to tell her.
The summer of 1991 was spent playing festivals, followed by the band's first brief but successful American jaunt in the autumn. They returned home to find themselves not only Best New Band at the Irish Entertainment Awards but also, and this is unprecedented for a band so new, the subject of a Channel 4 tv documentary entitled Sing A Powerful Song. A second American tour followed in 1992. "The full house cheered," reported The New York Times, of their Big Apple gig that May, going on to note that, "It was only the group's first song .... fans jumped up and down, climbed on shoulders and collided with one another: slam-reeling."
Not surprisingly, considering their achievements, several major companies had been monitoring their progress so, when their second album All The Way From Tuam, appeared in October 1992, it boasted a WEA label and secured their first UK Top 40 entry. Tickets for the subsequent UK tour disappeared fast, outselling higher profile acts in key territories. 1993 was a year of consolidation, as the Saw Doctors toured extensively across Europe and Australia in support of the album. By now, the British media, which had been lagging behind the rapidly expanding fan base, was beginning to grasp the appeal of the band.
"There is a special place in rock'n'roll mythology," wrote David Sinclair of The Times, "for that rare phenomenon, the people's band. The Grateful Dead, The Faces and Bruce Springsteen during his years as leader of the E Street Band are examples which define the breed ... the Saw Doctors are the latest in this strangely noble line." He's right. The only credibility that matters to the Saw Doctors is the kind conferred on them by the people for whom they sing and play. Buoyed by the success of the second album, but now resolved to resume control of their own affairs, the band formed its own label, Shamtown, and while working on their third album, released the Small Bit Of Love EP, which delivered their first UK singles chart Top Thirty entry during November 1994, and their first appearance on British TV's premier music show, Top Of The Pops. The year ended with the high of another sold out UK tour.
More American dates followed early in 1995, including the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, which found the band in its element. Over the previous couple of years their reputation at British and European festivals, including Glastonbury, had become second to none. This status was more than ever in evidence in June when they headlined London's Fleadh, along with Van Morrison and Sinead O'Connor.
Their next single, World Of Good, bettered the Small Bit Of Love EP by taking them into the UK Top Twenty, swiftly followed by a No6 position for the third album, Same Oul' Town, supported by, yes, another sell out UK tour. When that one rollercoastered into London, in March 1996, it was another reviewer for The Times, Paul Sexton, who observed that "if they could bottle the sort of bonhomie that can make an entire concert hall feel better, the Saw Doctors would have the medicine show to end them all". Following a UK Top Twenty smash with To Win Just Once, the band took a well-earned break towards the end of 1996, the first in their ten year history.
With their remarkable level of success, it would have surprised no-one if the Saw Doctors had re-located to London or at least Dublin, but that seems to be the last thing on their minds. After their fourth, most extensive and successful US visit ended in June 1997, they returned to Galway to finish work on the fourth album, Songs From Sun Street.
Over the years, the roster of those who could call themselves Saw Doctors has changed from time to time, but the core of the band, almost from the start, has remained Davy Carton (vocals/guitar), Leo Moran (guitar/vocals), Pearse Doherty (bass/vocals/flute/tin whistle) and John Donnelly (drums). These are the people who define the band and, as Sid Griffin of Q magazine has observed "The Saw Doctors are the very definition of the people's band."
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