The Saw Doctors, The Roxy, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., March 17, 2004 -- St. Patrick's Day
When the GMR editors were discussing their favorite "discoveries" made during their tenure with the magazine, I mentioned that, above all, the Saw Doctors would have to be my pick. Subsequently, Stephen Hunt asked if I had ever seen them live, and I had to reply in the negative. As I was reviewing the CD and DVD releases of Live in Galway, in order to get the right perspective, I supposed I should do myself a favor and go to a show. As one of the perks of working at GMR is the free stuff, I was able to make arrangements to see a show in exchange for the marvelous prose you are reading right now (and I think we both know who got the short end of the stick on that one). I chose the March 17th concert stop at the Roxy in Boston.
The Roxy is a nightclub located in the Theater District on Tremont Street near Chinatown, right in the heart of Boston. The unassuming entrance of the club (that you wouldn't notice unless you were looking for it) is right across the street from the parking garage and gives no clue as to the size of the interior. Security is tough, with a couple of rather imposing figures checking drivers' licenses and stamping hands with a "21+" mark. The bar security is heavy, as well, and we have to leave our bottles of Diet Coke at the door, with only vague hopes of ever seeing them again.
After ascending a series of multi-directional staircases and landings, we finally arrive at the main site, where the first thing I see is the merchandise table, hawking the usual band paraphernalia, with the new Live in Galway releases prominently placed. Executing a quick, graceful avoidance maneuver, we head for the inner sanctum. Once inside, the eyes must adjust to the "moody" lighting. Luckily, the stage is well lit and easily approached, as we have arrived half an hour before the show. We find a couple of prize spots standing on the dance floor behind about four other rows of already-packed-in fans and scan the surroundings. The dance floor appears to be the focus of the arrangement, but there is plenty of restaurant-style booth seating around the perimeter, as well as a second floor balcony where people are already gathering who don't necessarily want to be "in the thick of it," so to speak.
After some minor conversation and Guinness drinking, we all cheer when Saw Doctors percussionist Padraig Stevens comes out with his guitar and begins to play some of his own tunes. After the first couple, the rest of the Doctors join him and act as their own opening act under the name of The Shambles. To give you an idea, The Shambles are what would happen if the Saw Doctors were playing volleyball and somebody shouted "rotate" -- the guy who's usually at the back comes to the front. Bassist Anthony Thistlethwaite is particularly noticeable in his Shambles getup. With his knit cap and stoic demeanor, it almost appears as if U2's The Edge has taken the stage.
Stevens and company put on a great show and really get the crowd involved in songs that they very likely have never heard before (unless they had attended the previous night's show in Springfield), but which are ideal for sing-alongs. "Galway Come On Come On," "Money," and "The Tuam Beat" (which, by the way, "goes sugar sugar") are highlights of the set and have made me curious to hear the rest of the Shambles' album.
Stevens' songs are a little more roots- and a little less rock-influenced than the Doctors', but that turns out to be the perfect thing to rev up the crowd without overwhelming it. The similarity in lineup becomes confusing to a couple of people who think they are watching the Saw Doctors and seem highly disappointed when, after about thirty minutes, the band exits the stage. But they are easily reassured by their neighbors.
During the intervening break period, surprisingly few people move from their spots, except to go back and forth to the bar. At one point, someone passes around a stack of "N17" photocopies, which, I suss from the murmuring in the area, we are to hold up during the song's chorus. (This also proves useful for note-taking once the show begins, although this act becomes increasingly more difficult as time wears on, the crowd packs in closer, and arm movements are to be made at my peril.)
After about fifteen minutes, during which the crowd becomes increasingly more familiar and increasingly taller revellers give me an increasingly more selective view of the stage, the Saw Doctors -- fresh from a change of clothes, unlike us who are beginning to collectively reek -- burst upon the stage. The night's lineup is as follows: frontmen Davy Carton and Leo Moran, percussionist Padraig Stevens, bassist Anthony Thistlethwaite, drummer Jim Higgins, keyboardist Derek Murray, saxophonist Ritchie Buckley and backup vocalist "Mouse" McHugh (whom, it is announced, is experiencing his first trip to Boston).
As expected, the band begins with "N17," a real crowd favorite. The Saw Doctors are nothing if not crowd pleasers, and they eventually cover a great deal of their most popular songs, like "To Win Just Once," "Tommy K," "World of Good," "Bless Me Father," "Exhilarating Sadness" and, of course, the one-two punch of "I Useta Lover" and "Hay Wrap." Their rendition of "Me Heart Is Living in the Sixties Still" is enlivened by inserting a chorus from the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women," which, while sounding strange coming from the mouth of Davy Carton, brings forth the inevitable crowd cheer.
Among other things, it is fascinating to see just how many times Leo Moran is handed a different guitar between songs. So much preparation must go into the choice of sounds for each tune. And I didn't expect to see Padraig Stevens moving around the stage so much. At one moment, he is knocking on his rhythm blocks, and then suddenly there he is assisting Jim Higgins on the floor tom.
One of the highlights of the set is the wrapping of "Galway and Mayo" around Leo's tour de force "Maroon and White." He introduces the song as a tribute to a recent win of a hometown senior league football team, and the emotion he feels about their success is contained in his delivery. It is also a real joy to hear a new song debuted in the set, "She Used to Be My Sweetheart (Until It All Went Wrong)." While it is admittedly a mite similar in subject matter to the ubiquitous "I Useta Lover," no one seems to mind. We are all just there to have fun and to hear some feelgood rock and roll.
Or, rather, most of us are. I don't notice exactly at what point Mr. Obnoxious arrives on the scene, but he is dressed in green with a felt Mad Hatter-style hat on his head that is just tall enough to block the average person's view. That, however, isn't the main issue. The main problem is that he won't keep still. He continually works his way through the maze of people, and "accidentally" falls drunkenly into every female in his path. This becomes quite a distraction and could ruin the experience completely were it to get out of hand. Luckily, a rather solidly built member of the crowd calls him on it and steers him off the floor. The security certainly doesn't appear to have noticed anything. But I suppose their job is to protect the band from the crowd, not the crowd from itself.
In spite of Mr. Obnoxious, it is obvious that we are all (or at least those of us that I can see from my firmly guarded one-foot-square spot on the floor) having a great time laughing and hopping and singing along to nearly every song, even the ones we don't know all that well. Everyone else is, if not necessarily social -- we are talking about Boston, after all -- at least respectful of other people's space for the most part.
I'm not sure that this concert much resembles the one on the DVD -- those people appear to have plenty of room -- but boiled down to its essence, I think it probably matches pretty well. In comparison, it is really terrific to be able to choose who I look at in the band (being a drummer myself, this is usually Higgins or Stevens, but I am also inexplicably drawn by Thistlethwaite's serene manner, particularly during his harmonica solos), as opposed to the DVD, where the picture is chosen for you. It is just this level of intimacy with the band -- and with your fellow attendees -- that makes a live concert such an event, and this is no exception.
The Saw Doctors have a Web site here.