|Anto Thistlethwaite and Leo Moran on stage at Saint in Asbury Park.
There was a time in the 1990s when the trend in the music business was to go “unplugged.” It was a period of music history where I suppose both fans and artists reacted against the '1980s over-produced band' feeling in the tunes.
One of the great things about that trend was that the songs revealed something new about themselves when stripped of the studio trickery and synthesizers.
The tour of Anthony “Anto” Thistlethwaite and Leo Moran of the Saw Doctors has that feel to it. Over the course of their two hour set at the Saint in New Jersey’s Asbury Park, the acoustic duo deconstructed the Saw Doctors' songs you know so well and re-created them, exposing new lines in the old grooves.
“Same oul Monday / closed all day/the farmers and their wisps of hay/same oul hanging around the square/same oul spoofers/same oul stares,” Moran sang on “Same Aul Town,” with Anto accompanying him on harmonica.
These lads from Tuam have always painted a clear picture on chip shops, boating and starry nights of western rural Irish life with a reporter’s eye for detail.
Thistlethwaite played the harmonica as Moran strummed, making the song a country cousin to The Boss’s “Thunder Road.” It wasn’t the first time this local hero was mentioned by the duo from the stage.
“We broke a federal law a bit earlier today,” announced Moran from the stage. “We went over to Bruce Springsteen’s house and dropped our new CD off into the mailbox. Apparently, putting things other than U.S. mail into a mailbox is a federal offense as the security guard there so kindly told us.”
Thistlethwaite’s soulful saxophone licks called to mind the late Clarence Clemmons, a connection made by the majority of fans in the room.
That sly “aw, shucks” sense of humor makes Moran a potent storyteller and a charismatic frontman. His guitar playing was fluid and the voice was in fine form altogether.
“We recycle here on this tour,” joked Moran, holding up a set list that was written on the back of a pizza box. “This is a bare bones tour!”
Moran and Thistlethwaite, taking advantage of a hiatus from the Saw Doctors, have been touring around the Northeast and Midwest with whatever they can fit in the back of a rent-a-car and nothing more.
According to Moran, they are having the time of their lives getting back to the basics and venturing down side roads that the band’s tour bus often missed.
“First love stays with you forever/you were just about to blossom,” Moran sang, encouraging a sing-song of “forever and ever” in between the verses of “Red Cortina.” This was never a personal favorite in the Saw Doctor’s repertoire, yet this version made the song a set highlight.
Moran injected plenty of stories from his band’s history that were at times as entertaining as the songs themselves. “Red Cortina” was dedicated to an exotic Jersey Italian beauty that he fell for when he came for his first tour of America.
He was staying with his relations in Jamesburg, New Jersey (in the same area of town as this columnist) at the time and recalled the girl’s phone number to this day. That got a huge laugh from the crowd when he recited the number!
Moran sang a number of new and unfamiliar songs, including “Fill Her Up There Mister Oil Man” about a fight between the people of Co. Mayo and the Shell Oil Company. “You’ll never beat the bravery of the people of Mayo/they won’t be bought or bullied and as long as they’re alive/they’ll stand up strong and follow/that famous Rossport Five,” he sings defiantly.
Thistlethwaite and Moran took an opportunity to unearth rare and unreleased songs from their oeuvre. Moran revealed a humorous ditty, “Credit Union,” that he wrote when asked to play a few songs during the opening of the Tuam Credit Union. He wrote that ditty with Tuam songwriter Padraig Stevens, who also helped him write “I Useta Love Her” from the Saw Doctors’ debut album.
“I bet you don’t come to Sham-town when you dream,” he sang on “Shamtown,” one of the first songs Moran ever wrote but had not seen the light of day until this tour. A mournful saxophone melody from Thistlethwaite sits in the background, giving the narrator’s disappointment a sound if that were possible.
Thistlethwaite didn’t just use his harmonica, mandolin, guitar, saxophone and the other instruments he played on this night to tell a story. He wove a great tale about doing hash on the bed with Bob Dylan at a house Dylan was renting from Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.
“I think the statute of limitations have passed on this incident,” he said with a wink as we leaned into the story before launching into a fantastic read of Dylan’s “Most of the Time.”
“Carmel Mannion’s Son” was a lively folk rocker and another unreleased Moran song. He introduced it by describing a custom in Ireland for calling women by their maiden name to better pinpoint the town she comes from.
“If you call into the house on Father Griffin Road/there’s a welcome on the doorway/and the kettle on the stove/you get tea and bread and butter/and chocolate biscuit if you’re lucky/and a drop of the ‘quare stuff’ if you’re feeling plucky,” Moran sings.
“Carmel is from Logawanna which is a small townland a couple of miles outside the market town of Headford in Co. Galway,” explains Ollie Jennings, the Saw Doctors' manager and the band’s archivist of sorts.
“Carmel married Tony Barrett from Castlerea in Co. Roscommon and their first born Niall Barrett was born and raised in Galway City. Niall Barrett works as the tour manager with the Saw Doctors. In Galway he is known as Niall Barrett but back in Logawanna he is known as Carmel Mannion’s son.”
From the rural countryside Moran tells the tale of modern technology, recalling some close calls online with potential suitors. He sings on “Facebook,” a song that was once known as “Bebo,” “I’m never going in Facebook again/guess what? She wants to be my friend/to the depths of bunny boiling this could descend.”
The entire evening flew by way too fast, just as it usually does when you are reconnecting with long lost friends.
On the their last song, “Tommy K,” Moran strummed his way back into the dressing room with Thistlethwaite blowing sweet sax behind him. They got enough warm pats on the back on their way out to see them off to Tuam properly if the tour ended right there and then!
Fortunately, there is more to come. You only have a couple of more weeks to see the lads before their tour wraps up on October 27.
For the rest of you, take heart! Flyin’ It! is a tour memento and it will be available on November 1 from the Saw Doctors' web shop. It is currently on sale at the acoustic gigs that Thistlethwaite and Moran are playing during October.
For any fans of the band, it is a must-have and a great Christmas present to yourself if you want to deck the halls with shamrocking music a wee bit early!
You can check them out at LeoandAnto.com and while you’re there, check out their great blog.
According to their blog, the lads are enjoying this tour as much as the audience apparently is enjoying them. “The venue, the crowd, the support acts in Asbury are all top of the range,” Moran writes. “We feel very lucky and delighted at how the gigs are going and how satisfied the audience is – even if Bruce didn’t manage to make it this time either.”
Alas, it was The Boss’s loss...