Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Last Weekend in New York

From an early age, I have loved live music. But not any live music-no jazz, big bands, classical, and certainly no swing choirs. There pretty much has to be guitars. I guess the Beatles are to blame, but Bob Dylan has a share also. So, I'm a teenager in McCook, Nebraska, watching the Beatles in black and white on Ed Sullivan in the lobby of the Keystone Hotel. About the same time, Dave "Woody" Salisbury and Randy Loose forced me to listen to an early Dylan album. I am hooked. I love music, and I soon discover that I love it best LIVE, whether it is on the stage of the City Auditorium in McCook, or the similar facility in Hastings, Nebraska, or any of the other dozens of places I eventually saw music performed.
I never got to see the Beatles live, but that really doesn't bother me, because I would have been disappointed, in that they were better on record than live, partly because you could hardly hear them for the screaming. Bob Dylan I have seen several times, each time an adventure. And I would make a wild estimate that I have seen several hundred groups or individuals in concert, in venues as diverse as smoky bars(thanks to the smoking ban I don't have to worry about this anymore) up to a famous football field full of 60,000 fans.
As opposed to my running statistics, I have not kept notebooks listing who I've seen, and where. I bet I could be surprised at what I've forgotten(probably should have kept records).
I do keep, however, a running total in my mind of individuals or groups I have seen more than a few times. It is not a huge list- I've lived too much of my life in rural Nebraska. I have seen Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Greg Kihn Band, Emmy Lou Harris, and Bob Dylan five times each.
But for over 25 years my focus was on Bruce Springsteen. Ever since first seeing him, at the Berkeley Community Theatre over the summer of 1978, until early this century, Bruce has been the center of my musical focus. It helps that Kevin and I had the opportunity to attend a show later in 1978 that was broadcast on fm radio, widely distributed, and has been regularly described as Bruce's single greatest concert, therefore the greatest rock and roll concert ever performed anywhere.
I own virtually all the officially released Bruce, dozens of bootlegs and rarities, but the fact that I could only see him eight times in 25 years somewhat cooled my jets. The concerts we saw in Fargo and Kansas City(twice) in relatively recent times were outstanding, very nearly as good as the much younger Bruce we saw back in the California days. It was particularly fun taking Maureen, Emily, and Pam to these concerts.
But, apparently my musical affections were ripe to be stolen away as I discovered a virtually unknown band, the Saw Doctors, from County Galway, Ireland. You couldn't buy their cds or see them in concert, but the music I could find, usually by downloading from Napster, was infectious. And indescribable. Over the summer of 2002 we visited Galway, bought cds and t-shirts. It took until 2004 before I could manage to see them live, in Chicago, over St. Patrick's Day weekend, amidst a crowd of about 1500. OK, the crowd was smaller and the music different from Bruce, but the feel was a bit similar. Everybody was glad to be there. A good time was being had by all. A really good time.
The music is absolutely indescribable. You know, if you had to describe Bob Dylan 45 years ago, you could reference Woody Guthrie. If you were fond of the Dave Clark Five, you could say they're somewhat like the Beatles. I could go on and on, even more than I already have, but my point is that there exists no possible reference for my new favorite band.
Even the name creates questions. In rural Ireland, Scotland, and England, a saw doctor is an itinerant craftsman, a wanderer who will sharpen your saws and mend your pots and pans, before stealing your chickens. The closest word we would have in the US would be "tinker", not nearly as memorable a name for a band.
The band is originally from Tuam, a town of around 3,000 people in the west of Ireland. It is a typical story as veterans of various bands eventually coalesced into yet another band. This one had the benefit of playing in a small pub frequented by a rock group in town recording their new album. The group was the Waterboys, whose classic Fisherman's Blues was being recorded in nearby Spiddal. Chief Waterboy Mike Scott asked these kids(actually one of them was an adult who had settled into a full-time job as a weaver) to accompany the Waterboys on an upcoming six week tour of England. The five of them traveled in a small van with all their equipment.
The next few years found them gigging around home, eventually releasing a couple singles, one of which, "I Useta Lover" became a smash hit, number one for nine weeks, still the best selling single ever in Ireland.
Steady touring, which eventually included the US has created a loyal fanbase virtually everywhere there are people who are a little bit Irish. In 2006 they played a huge concert in Dubai, where, apparently large numbers of Irish work in construction and services, of which Dubai has more than its share.
So, since driving to Chicago in 2004, we have driven to St. Paul, MN, flown to New York three times, Chicago twice, and driven to Kansas City and Joe drove a carload of Maureen's stuff to Massachusetts and saw a concert with Tom and Mo in Northampton. My ninth and tenth Saw Doctors concerts were Friday and Saturday, eclipsing my eight Bruce Springsteen concerts.
These two were the best of the ten, featuring sellout crowds at the Nokia Theatre, on Times Square. Although none of us were in a VW van, or under the influence of lsd, the fans are sometimes compared to Grateful Dead fans, primarily because of the distances we travel.
We ate Saturday night at Emeril's favorite Irish pub in NYC, and our flight from Nebraska wasn't even the second longest at our table. A pair of guys flew from Manchester, England, and our friends Donna and Jim came from Seattle. Actually, Tom and Maureen came the shortest distances of the twelve of us who ate together.
The concerts themselves are a bit tribal, or perhaps cultish, as the faithful know the lyrics, when to sing, clap, laugh, or point fingers at the lead singer(chanting "We don't believe you").
The music is not the least bit traditional- no pipes or fiddles, no clog dancing, and no Danny Boy. It is very Irish, however, but in a cultural sense, not a musical one. There are songs about highways, a legendary local dj, the first minister for fine arts and culture, young love and lust, yearning for home far away, and an regular reference to various things Catholic. Sample lyric:

"you know you'd often wonder
as the years go past
why you ever bothered
going to mass
was it the fear of god
or to find a wife
or just buying shares
in the afterlife"

So the deal is I travel thousands of miles to see a band and when you tell people you're going to see them, they invariably say, "Who?" They've never had a hit record and actually don't have a recording contract. Every few years they record and release a cd which you can buy at concerts or from the office in Galway. This actually maximizes their slim profits because they'll never sell a million, so big record corporations aren't interested in investing in them. They make enough touring to be a viable business, but just, if I had to guess.
The two nights at the Nokia were cosmic- sold-out good times full of rollicking rock and roll and wonderful camaraderie. I have seen five shows in the last 53 weeks, although it will probably be a year before my next. The deal is that lots of people see them much more often than I do. It's not like I'm even in the top ten of big fans.
I'll give up now, but can you tell that my sixty-first birthday celebration was a good time?


SeamusNH said...

I discovered the Saw Doctors 5 years ago when i was in Ireland. My cousin introduced me to the band; he lives in Tuam Galway and knows them. I haven't felt like this about a band since discovering Springsteen 30+ years ago. If you grew up on the East Coast in the 1970's, Springsteen sang to your soul. If you are Irish or of Irish descent, the Saw Doctors sing to your soul as well. It is, BTW, a great time as well...

kevinandjoe said...

Seamus, I'm really sorry I didn't get to talk to you Saturday. We were at the other end of the table at Tir na nOg and I just didn't manage to get a chance to talk to you.
I've admired your posts, and clearly have extremely similar musical tastes, even though I wasn't an East Coast kid.
And like you, I'm new to the band. Sparkey appeared surprised when I told him the first time I saw them was 2004.
Maybe next year. I'm pretty sure I can't make any fall gigs, although Governor's Island sounds good, and Noho is always a possibility with the youngest in Amherst.

kevinandjoe said...

I have always been intrigued by the music Joe listened to and liked. While we share many similar feelings, we don’t always connect on the same music, although I have a healthy respect for his choices. For example I can’t say that I was a big Left Banke fan, but I really enjoyed the Four Tops and Joe played both. We do agree that live music in a small venue is almost always the best. (I can remember the rockin tunes laid down by the Cheerful Earful in the late 60’s, another band that disappeared into that goodnight)

I have seen some big acts over the last several years and the best of the lot was John Fogerty in an auditorium that held 1,500. Great write Joe.

kevinandjoe said...

Well, I admit to a certain fondness for both the Four Tops and the Left Banke(both of whose hits, Walk Away Renee and Pretty Ballerina, were written about the same person), as well as many other less than well-known or well-respected groups and singers.
But I always figured my real serious faves were the ones I went to see live on a regular basis.
This means that after the Cheerful Earful, which I thought of, but decided I had already written too much, my fanaticism started with McGuinn/Byrds, then slowly slid to Bruce, holding for 25 years, then establishing itself firmly on the Saw Doctors.