PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | When it comes to Irish rock, I’ve always been a Pogues man. Their frenetic reels and rockers have always spoken to the madman in me, just as the great Shane MacGowan has always touched my drunkard’s heart. The time I saw them poor Shane was so totally paralytic he was reduced to clinging to the mike stand for dear life, like a sailor clutching a capstan in a savage squall to keep from plunging into the pitiless clutches of the great tossing sea. His voice was a wreck, as befits a man burning himself down with Bushmills and the Black Stuff (to say nothing of the white stuff), but even in his ruin MacGowan was still pure dead brilliant.
But I’ve since come to appreciate the greatness of another Irish band, The Waterboys. While their Celtic folk/rock lacks the whiplash tempos and demented energy of the Pogues, The Waterboys have their own calmer charms. At his best front man Mike Scott shares Van Morrison’s sage’s soul and as nigh to earth as Heaven brand of Celtic spirituality. And The Waterboys’ louder LPs, while less uniquely Irish and more traditional in the mode of U2, prove they aren’t nicknamed “The Big Music” for nothing. And any band that can produce a cover of “Sweet Thing” every bit as moving as Van the Man’s original has earned my undying love.
Formed in 1983, The Waterboys have run through an astounding number of members—I count 65 former W-Boys, a number that rivals Mark E. Smith’s serial-killer body count—with Scott being the only constant. They played a big noise in their early days, then took a turn to more folksy material, and have swung back and forth between “The Big Music” and folk ever since. They’ve broken up and reformed, and put out 10 studio LPs in all, but their masterpiece (in my inarguable critic’s opinion) is 1988’s folksier Fisherman’s Blues.
That said, 2007’s hard-rocking Book of Lightning and 1985’s exquisitely beautiful This Is The Sea are most definitely keepers, as is 1993’s Dream Harder. And all of their LPs have their highlights, great songs that leap out at you like “Mad as the Mist and Snow,” “Medicine Bow,” “Old England,” “Be My Enemy,” and “Killing My Heart.” And any Irishman who can write a song about Hank Williams as great as Scott’s “Has Anybody Seen Hank?” is a boyo of mine.
Me, I favor their folk shenanigans over their rock bombast—what can I say? I’m turning into a fookin’ folkie in my dotage—so I was happy to learn that The Waterboys’ “U.S.” line-up included plenty of players of folk instruments. They included, in addition to Scott on vocals, guitar, and electric piano, longtime Waterboys’ fiddler and occasional mandolin player Steve Wickham as well as Americans Jay Barclay (guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica), Malcolm Gold (bass), Daniel Mintseris (keyboards), and Chris Benelli (drums).
Still, anything was okay by me so long as Scott and Company omitted their more pretentious songs, such “The Stolen Child,” the recorded version of which features Gaelic actor Tomás Mac Eoin portentously reading the W.B. Yeats poem of the same name. And speaking of Yeats, I fervently hoped they wouldn’t play such songs as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” “The Faery’s Last Song” (nothing’s worse than a song with a faery in it), and “Song of Wandering Aegus” (I had Aegus once; I thought my penis was going to fall off) off 2011’s An Appointment With Mr. Yeats, a concept album based on the works of Ireland’s brilliant but randy poet. (I was recently disappointed to learn that the oft-repeated tale of the elderly Yeats being infused with monkey glands to cure his impotency is a myth, although I plan to continue perpetuating it because it’s far more amusing than the truth.)
Scott has Yeats on the brain, just as the poet the wags called “The Gland Old Man”—who did undergo suspect surgery at 69 to fix his banjaxed balls—had poontang on his. There are much worse literary figures to be in thrall to—Alfred, Lord Tennyson comes to mind—but as for me, I can only wish Scott were an Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, or Samuel Beckett fan. Take Beckett: there was an Irishman I could get behind, what with his bleak and hilarious novels illustrating his belief that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
Anyway, The Waterboys played the 9:30 Club on Tuesday, October 22. And I missed the opener because, well… fact is I was sitting in a pizza joint toilet stall when the cops burst into the bog, kicked in my stall door, then said, obviously disappointed, “You ain’t him.” “Who’s him?” I asked. “The man-monkey,” said one. “Short, simian, long-armed,” said the other. “The fucking missing link,” said the first one. “We have a report a man-chimp just robbed the store across the street,” said the second. “A man-chimp?” I asked. “An ape man is how the clerk described him,” said the first. “Maybe four-feet tall, arms reaching the whole way to the ground,” said the second. “Very hirsute,” said the first. “Well, gotta go find us King Kong, Jr.,” said the second and they left. At which point a man-chimp crawled out of the closet beneath the sink and said, “Me want Marlboro.”
Anyhoo, I made it to the show, which was a seated event and packed with Irish folk, one of whom made my night when he leaped out of his chair during crowd pleaser “The Whole of The Moon” and bellowed, in a brogue a good 12 times thicker than Guinness, “For fuck’s sake, people, get up!” As for Scott, a woman turned to me early on and said, “Does not this singer think he’s Bob Dylan in 1978?” I didn’t notice the resemblance, but the show was brilliant, so thank Christ Scott didn’t sound like Dylan in 1978.
The band opened with the stately “Strange Boat” playing acoustic guitars. “Strange Boat” was very moving, especially when Scott sang, “We’re turning flesh and body into soul” (only an Irishman could say something like that and not incur my ridicule) to the accompaniment of a long and very fine fiddle solo by Wickham and some nice harmonica by Barclay. “Strange Boat” was great, as was “Fisherman’s Blues,” which also highlighted Wickham’s fiddle, saw Barclay playing mandolin, and was a lovely mid-tempo song that reminded me of The Faces at their most tender. I loved the way Scott sang “With light in my head/And you in my arms, whoo!” Very soulful it was, for a song about a guy who catches fish.
I didn’t much care for a few songs, so I’ll get them out of the way up front. “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy” was a bit too jiggy and leprechaun-infested for my tastes, while “Spirit,” a short bit of too easy profundity (“Man crawls/Spirit flies,” etc.) sung by Scott while banging away on the electric piano, failed to move me as well. Finally, I wasn’t thrilled by the song everybody else seemed to be there to hear, namely “The Whole of The Moon.” It boasted a catchy melody but was dated sounding, like it had just emerged from a tomb marked 1983. Even the guitar riff sounded like it came straight from the early days of MTV, and to make matters worse Scott mentioned unicorns, which is a sure fire deal-breaker for me. If you see a unicorn shoot it, that’s my motto; then drive a stake through its heart, just to be sure it’s dead.
“A Girl Called Johnny” featured some big drum thump and basic piano by Scott that locked down the song, as well as a fiddle that came and went like an impulsive ghost. Meanwhile Scott sang of a boy who preferred to be a girl, “Her choice was to change or be changed,” as Wickham played a great fiddle solo. Scott ended the song singing “Ashes and sand/Ashes and sand” over and over again, while Wickham freaked out on the fiddle.
Scott then peered into the audience to say, “I can’t see ya too good, but I can feel ya,” as the band broke in a newbie, the entertaining and dope-friendly “Still a Freak,” which Scott amusingly termed “a new song in a swashbuckling blues idiom.” And one piratical blues it was, featuring a mad rash guitar solo by Scott while Wickham accompanied him on fiddle, as well as some great lyrics such as, “Things disappear/But I’m still here/I’m a freak” and “If you ain’t crazy/There’s something wrong.” Scott also probably declared, “I’m a head” before shutting the song down with a brief electric piano solo, and I’m glad he is, because the world needs all the heads as it can get.
The Waterboys played a tremendous version of “We Will Not Be Lovers” off Fisherman’s Blues, falling into an industrial-strength propulsive groove while Scott sang the chorus, “Find yourself another/Cuz we will not be lovers.” Meanwhile some frantic guitar riffs got tossed in while Wickham—who is one Queen Bitch of a fiddler—played it really gonzo. “Words are your weapons/Lies are your defense” snarled Scott, then the band dropped out while he sang a verse, then kicked back in just in time for Scott to sing, “No no no no no no no no no no” before the band put the kibosh on the tune.
“The Girl in the Swing,” a very pretty mid-tempo tune off The Waterboys’ debut album, featured some big guitars, as well as some understated fiddle. Wickham played several solos to the accompaniment of drummer Chris Benelli, both playing with increasing frenzy as they went along; then the band would crash back in with some big guitar chords, while Scott sang, “When you just asked me/Do I know what love is/Well, sure I know/Sure I know what love is,” then went on to define it as “A rain that falls a long, long way from home/It lives in the girl in the swing, it lives in the girl in the swing” as the song ended.
The Waterboys played several tunes off An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, and just to show you what a thick tosser I am, they were actually quite excellent. The slow “Song of Wandering Aengus,” which opened with just Scott on electric piano, left me saying, “This song is lovely, goddamn, simply lovely” despite its silver apples of the moon, golden apples of the sun, and various other poetic foodstuffs you can’t actually eat. It proceeded at such a stately pace, and featured Barclay playing a very long and laid-back solo on guitar, that I simply couldn’t despise it, as much as I wanted to.
Even better was “Mad as the Mist and Snow,” which opened with just Scott playing a fast riff on guitar. He was joined by the fiddle, then the drums kicked in and it was totally frantic like a drunken brawl in a Dublin local amongst ossified dossers, what with Scott repeating “That Cicero and Homer/Were mad as the mist and snow” and Wickham’s fiddle getting more dissonant and did I omit to mention that Wickham and Barclay were both wearing black pointy nose masks? They played some nice pass the solo, all the while circling one another, and it was kind of groovy and kind of creepy, far creepier than the monkey man I encountered earlier in the evening. Then Scott fell into a total Yeats trance and orated Yeats’ greatest poem, “The Second Coming,” to the accompaniment of just the drums and really camped it up at the poem’s famous ending, saying, “And what rough beast/Its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem… TO BE BORN??”
Finally, The Waterboys played their adaptation of Yeats’ “White Birds.” And it was lovely too, despite the lyrics, which featured lots of white birds and flowers and stuff, and I might not have liked if it hadn’t had a nice catchy beat you could get a monkey gland transplant to. Scott sang about “a sadness that may never die,” then Barclay played a long, slow and echo-laden solo, and then the song slowed down and Scott sang, “White birds on the foam of the sea” and I’ll be damned if I didn’t mist up. Then he repeated the lines, “If I should die tonight way before my time” over and over and the song grew more frenetic, with a pounding repetitive guitar riff, Wickham’s fiddle flourishes, and the drums going like mad, before Scott sang, “Hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey!” and the song ended.
“Glastonbury Song” featured a really big rock opening then morphed into a pop tune, with Scott singing “Took a tip from the Buddha boy” then “Just found God!” over and over. I particularly loved the moment he sang, “There is a green hill far away/I’m going back there one fine day” to the accompaniment of some hard guitar riffs, then played a killer guitar solo including an odd leg kick. Scott introduced “When Ye Go Away” by saying, “I’d like you to imagine yourself in a rustic Irish kitchen,” then the band kicked into a very folksy (like Irish Kuntry!) number that had Wickham playing mandolin and Barclay on banjo. In my notebook I wrote “This song stinks of shamrocks” but I was just kidding; it was actually quite lovely when Scott sang, “I will cry/When ye go away,” and things really got interesting when Wickham picked up his fiddle and played in tandem with Barclay on banjo.
“I Can See Elvis” was another new number, a rocker with a hard guitar riff that featured great lyrics about Elvis smoking pot on a Harley Davidson, then name-checked Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Parker, not to mention Joan of Arc and Plato (talk about your Wild Bunch!) Wickham played his usual brilliant fiddle, then the song kicked into overdrive with Barclay playing a high-pitched guitar solo that grew more dissonant as it went along.
The Waterboys closed their set with “Don’t Bang the Drum,” which opened with some spaghetti-western music on programmed trumpet that made me suspect I was doomed. Fortunately the band kicked into rock overdrive with some heavy drum pummel and a big noise on guitar. Meanwhile Scott sang, “What show of soul/Are we going to get from you?” then answered dismissively, “But if I know you/You’ll bang the drum like monkeys do.” Then Wickham and Barclay played in perfect synch, with Barclay doing his best Hendrix imitation while Scott repeated “Don’t bang the drum, whooooo!/Don’t bang the drum.” The guitarists and fiddler gathered together in a tight circle on stage as they played a wondrous din, then the song ended in a big clamorous rock exodus.
The Waterboys returned after the officially appointed waiting-behind-stage time. Well, actually just Wickham returned, to play some fine Celtic fiddle. Then the band joined him on stage and they played the deliriously comely “You in the Sky,” with its fiddle as pretty as a sunset over Galway Bay, and for the second time that night I fought tears. Very romantic and lovely as a fresh-faced colleen, the song was, and I think I cracked when Scott sang, “Open up your heart/And sing right through me,” although it might have been the moment when he sang, “You and the sky/I want to know what clouds/Come between you and I.”
The band ended the show with one of my favorites, the hard-charging and very Dylanesque “Be My Enemy.” Imagine “Maggie’s Farm” with a rocket engine strapped to it, and you’ve got “Be My Enemy,” which featured a wild electric piano solo by Daniel Mintseris, a bass solo, and Scott going on about “Nazis on the telephone” and “I’ve a bucketful of Babylon/I got a handful of lead/I’m gonna put them in a gun man/Point it at your head.” Meanwhile Scott and Barclay played in tandem, raising and lowering their guitars in synch like an 80s hair metal band, while Scott sang, “If you’ll be my enemy/I’ll be your enemy too.” It was fantastic until the band did that annoying stop, wait ten seconds, then start the song over again bit, like four times in a row. I hate that stuff, and wished I had Scott’s lyrical gun. But what can you do? Sometimes even the best bands don’t know when to shut the fuck up.
What can I say? It was a deadly show, even if The Waterboys didn’t play “Sweet Thing” (my fondest hope), “Old England,” or “And a Bang on the Ear.” I am continually being reminded of what an eejit I was back in the 80s, when I listened exclusively to American music with the exception of The Smiths and The Pogues, who received very difficult-to-obtain exemptions from my Office of Foreign Affronts. Why, if I hadn’t been so close-minded I could have been enjoying the Waterboys for decades, instead of one week. But I won’t get fooled again. Now if The Waterboys would just put out a Samuel Beckett concept album called The Unnamable, I swear to Jaysus I’ll be the happiest waster alive.
OPENER, FREDDIE STEVENSON
Correction: On October 25, The Waterboys’ front man Mike Scott tweeted, “Someone tell this poor man [i.e., yours truly] I’m not f*cking Irish and Yeats never had a monkey gland transplant.”
I sincerely apologize to Mr. Scott, who is Scottish, for getting his heritage wrong. As for W.B. Yeats’ supposed monkey gland transplant, I clearly state in my review that it was an urban legend. That said, in a later tweet that same day, Mr. Scott kindly wrote, “Let’s give the dude from The Vinyl District a break. He dug the show at the 9:30 Club even if he got my origins wrong. Thanks fr the good review, man.”
You’re very welcome, sir.