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Sunday Night Irish Music Byte

The Saw Doctors at the Melody Tent on Cape Cod, MA

Irish music byte week continues.The Saw Doctors are currently my favorite Irish pop band. They seem to perform in Boston at least three or four times a year so there is plenty of opportunity to see them live in the Bay State.

The Saw Doctors are an Irish folk rock band. Formed in 1986 in Tuam, County Galway, they have achieved eighteen top-thirty singles in Ireland, including three number ones. Their first number one, “I Useta Lover,” topped the Irish charts for nine consecutive weeks in 1990 and still holds the record for the country’s all-time biggest-selling single. Renowned for their barnstorming live performances, the band has a loyal following, especially in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The Saw Doctors rose to gain national attention during 1987 and 1988 as they toured in support of popular Irish bands such as the Hothouse Flowers and The Stunning. They also proved to be a major hit when they played at the 1988 Galway Arts Festival. In the spring of 1988, when The Saw Doctors were playing a six-week residency at the Quays Bar in Galway, their energetic live show attracted the attention of the The Waterboys, who were then recording their Fisherman’s Blues album in nearby Spiddal. Pub sessions and budding friendships among the two groups would prove fruitful for the Saw Doctors’ future, and would see eventual crossovers between the two groups. The band’s current bass player, Anthony Thistlethwaite, and former drummer, Fran Breen, have both been members of The Waterboys.

In the fall of 1988, The Saw Doctors filmed a satirical “rockumentary” on a flat-bed truck while driving between Galway and Salthill. A parody of U2’s newly released Rattle and Hum film, in which U2 play Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” from a flat-bed truck in San Francisco, The Saw Doctors’ Crackle and Buzz had its “world premiere” at the Claddagh Palace Cinema in Galway. The Saw Doctors played live from the cinema’s balcony, caricaturing the short acoustic set U2 played atop the Savoy Cinema on O’Connell Street when Rattle and Hum premiered there on 27 October 1988. Footage from the tongue-in-cheek stunt was featured on RTÉ’s main evening news.

In late 1988 and early 1989, The Saw Doctors accompanied The Waterboys on tours of Ireland and the United Kingdom. In August 1989, The Waterboys’ frontman Mike Scott produced the band’s first single, “N17,” a song about an Irish emigrant longing to be driving on the N17 trunk road that connects Galway with the Saw Doctors’ hometown of Tuam. Although “N17” did not chart upon its original release, the band’s barnstorming live performances over the next year, particularly their appearance at the inaugural 1990 Féile music festival in Thurles, County Tipperary, cemented their reputation as a formidable live act. The song became known as the band’s anthem.

The band is often compared with American singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen due to their frequent invocation of local atmosphere, haunts, and characters, and their penchant for singing about ordinary people’s lives in economically difficult times. Some Saw Doctors songs take autobiographical youthful memories — of an attractive schoolgirl from the local Catholic boarding school (“Presentation Boarder”), of a missed opportunity to score a goal in a gaelic football game (“Broke My Heart”), of driving with a father while he points out local landmarks (“Galway and Mayo”), of first love (“Red Cortina”), of clumsy teenage seduction (“D’ya Wanna Hear My Guitar?”), of dreary Irish summers (“Will it Ever Stop Raining?”), or of farmers’ harvest banter (“Hay Wrap”) — and weave them into wry but often touching portraits of rural Irish life. Other songs, written from more mature, serious perspectives, explore themes such as depression and desperation (“Same Oul’ Town,” “Sing a Powerful Song,” “To Win Just Once”); emigrant longings for home (“N17”, “The Green and Red of Mayo,” “Midnight Express,” “Going Home”); and cravings for adult love, acceptance, and togetherness (“Share the Darkness,” “Clare Island,” “Wake up Sleeping”).

On recent albums Villains and The Cure, the Saw Doctors’ longstanding affection for the landscape and local history of western Ireland led them to criticize the country’s Celtic Tiger economic boom. Commenting on how the many new roads and houses throughout the Irish countryside disrespect land and ancestry, “Out for a Smoke” features the lyrics “The bones of our ancestors / Are buried in the field behind the shed / They could be lying there oblivious / Underneath cement before I’m dead.” Having chronicled an era of economic depression, poverty, and emigration, the Saw Doctors find themselves in the ironic position of being unable to approve of how an economic boom had changed their country’s social and cultural fabric.

The Saw Doctors have a rabid international fan base that has been compared to that of the Grateful Dead. Fueled by those in Ireland as well as those of Irish descent in the US, UK, and elsewhere, this unofficial fan club prides itself on seeing the band live as many times as possible. They meet online in a forum on the band’s website and pursue ongoing global conversations about the band.

Please enjoy the following two video clips of the Saw Doctors but be forewarned, they are addictive.