The Waterboys

The Waterboys

It’s always a good day when Edinburgh-born troubadour Mike Scott comes to Melbourne town with his latest incarnation of The Waterboys in tow. This band is a shape-shifting entity (featuring, to date, a mind-boggling 70+ musicians) and it’s lineup morphs depending on (a) where in the world Scott happens to be and (b) just what he is setting out to achieve. Of tonight’s six-piece, only the core unit of Mike Scott, his long-time compatriot folk/rock fiddler Steve Wickham and drummer Ralph Salmins were in the band during their last visit. Whilst Scott’s modus operandi keeps everyone honest – with a back catalogue of literally hundreds of songs that he could choose to dust off at any given time. Fans know an evening like this suggests an edgy and slightly dangerous proposition where nothing is promised and anything is possible.

Tonight we are fortunate in that he has chosen to play in a venue with outstanding acoustics – always a great start. He’s showcasing 2015’s critically-lauded ‘Modern Blues’ (its title an updated reference to arguably Scott’s career defining album ‘Fisherman’s Blues’) and we are all eager to see just how well the newborn material fits alongside that track and its older siblings like ‘The Whole of the Moon’.

This is just the second date of a brief Australasian tour coinciding with their appearance at Bluesfest 2015 in Byron Bay. It graciously takes in Perth, Melbourne, Auckland, and Sydney – finishing in Byron on the 4th April. T-shirts featuring the tour dates prove the hot item at the merchandise desk and I spy many punters reappearing from the restrooms proudly sporting their new purchase. I can’t really blame their enthusiasm for Waterboys fans. Tonight’s gig is a major occasion and has been a long time in coming.

The evening’s stroll down ‘the golden road’ of The Waterboys back catalogue kicks off in thundering fashion with the new album’s opening track ‘Destinies Entwined’. Mike fairly spits the words at the front row, all angular guitar swings and impassioned leg kicks. The band already flat out and cornering on two wheels. We are in for a barnstormer of an evening. The boys don’t miss a beat and break straight into the follower ‘Still A Freak'. To my ears an autobiographical celebration of self belief:

“I’m still a freak, I ain’t been gagged, I’m still flying the flag
The game’s moving so fast, who knows where it’s gonna be this time next week!
Empires rise and fall, but through it all. I’m still a freak!”

Scott pauses proceedings momentarily to compliment the earthy interior stylings of Melbourne's Art Centre Recital Hall. “I like this Hall… yeah... It seems to my eyes, ‘Flinstonian’… Do you know what that means? That means it was designed by the same guys who designed the sets for the Flintstones!…. ‘Flintstonian Hall, Melbourne’ I name this place…. Yabba dabba doooo!’”

He then sidles stage right to the second keyboard and as the familiar chords of that precious first single ‘A Girl Called Johnny’ ring out over the ecstatic audience, we are at once transported back to 1983. Brother Paul nails the stabbing organ jabs and Wickham’s fiddle accompaniment is so skilfully delivered, for a split second we completely forget we are not hearing the iconic Thistlewaite saxophone parts. Simply stellar.

Once the applause drops off there is a reverent quiet between songs. Not a heckle, woot or callout. Not a whisper. The audience sit in absolute pin-dropping silence. Ears pricked for what gem he might bestow upon us next. New single ‘November Tale’ follows, an exquisitely sentimental tale about meeting a lover after 27 years and reflecting on the different paths they’d followed – she, a life in the church – he, the travelling minstrel. From the front row i can discern Scott delivers the vocal with eyes completely closed. Completely in the moment and the lyric. The warmth and affection in his voice is tangible.

“We walked along a while... Like we were old companions...
But I could feel the gap between us... Yawning like a canyon...
She with her church and code...Her extravagant beliefs...
Me a creature of the road...A child of dust and grief”

It’s major singalong time as Mike opts to trot out the classic ‘Glastonbury Song’. Scott’s lyrics have always been a magical strain of sentimentality, mysticism and romance – and when powered along by the swirling gospel inspired organ of Brother Paul, soaring lead guitar of New Yorker Zach Ernst and insistent basslines of Muscle Shoals’ David Hood – simply grows wings, circles around us all and whips the room into a spiritual whirlwind. Involuntarily heads sway and religious beliefs aside, it is irresistible not to join in on the chorus: “I just found God...I just found God...I just found God where he always was...”

The show’s immense backdrop features the striking ‘Modern Blues’ artwork – an imposing lichen-covered scarecrow standing in a field of waist high wildflowers with outstretched arms. It’s imposing when the lights are up but when the lights are turned way down low, something else happens entirely. It’s profile uncanningly frames Scott’s wiry figure perfectly and gives him ominous black wings. A well considered design placement or happy accident? It matters not – it is perfectly fitting.

The Waterboys

When Scott introduces ‘Three Day Man’ from the first album, long time fans are incredulous at their luck. Such an early and rarely played song is a true gem to hear live. It’s a fabulous rollicking paean to the noncommittal relationship.

“People snatch instinctively for whatever crutch they need…
But I promise not to abuse you, if you don’t abuse me
And that means that I’ll be never your slave…
It means that you’re not here to stay,
it means we’d never be friends for life…”

The poignant moments just keep coming. ‘Nearest Thing to Hip’ follows. A lament about all the cool interesting little funky shops disappearing in Scotland. “You’re okay in Melbourne because you guys have Brunswick Street”, Mike laughs. He sings, “there’s a little record store with a wooden floor...that ain’t there no more that I used to frequent”

Mike gets the audience to sing along to it’s infectious chorus:
“it was the nearest thing to this shithole and it’s gone”.

Mike pauses to quell an upset stomach with a paracetamol delivered by the ever attentive stagehand. If he’d been feeling poorly uptil now, the consummate showman sure didn’t show it. As his gulps the pill down, some laddish wit sensing his opportunity calls out a request for “Medicine Bow”. Mike ignores the comment but then answers an earlier audience request and plays ‘I Can See Elvis’. Yet another of Scott’s fanciful flights of imagination. It’s a crackup.

“I can see Elvis
Throned like a king astride a golden Harley
Smoking a reefer he just rolled
Full of Acapulco Gold
With Hendrix, Dean and Marley”

From then on we’re transported squarely into ‘Big Music’ territory. We’re gifted the iconic ‘The Whole Of The Moon’, as another gorgeous extended singalong. Just when one wonders how he’s going to top that he delivers the evening’s showstopper performance. The majority of the band leave the stage with only Mike and Steve Wickham remaining. The Boleroesque strains of ‘Don’t Bang The Drum’ from 1985’s ’This Is The Sea’ ring out of the darkness. Audible gasps from the audience. Tonight’s interpretation of this environmental anthem is a revelation – compared with the original recorded version – a full-on assault by a raging indignant, this time Mike is reigned in and restrained. Stuttering the refrain in a trembling voice. The world is now a much darker place and the message has become more of a plea than a demand. It is powerful in it’s restraint. At the song’s end Mike sits at the keyboard, wrung out, emotionless, completely spent and gazes out into the darkness, deep into the audience. He receives the first of the evenings standing ovations. It is one of those moments that resonates and burns itself into the memory banks.

Mike chooses to finish the main set with the anthemic ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ followed by an 11 minute rendering of the closing track from ‘Modern Blues’, ‘Long Strange Golden Road’ which bookends the main set perfectly. The band then retires for a few minutes before returning to close the show out with another anthem he has made his own. It’s an extended cover of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’. Epic.

We file out of the Recital Centre, all still reeling from what we have just heard and seen. As the trainspotters amongst us pour over tonight’s setlist, we realise quite incredulously that Mike has in fact squeezed in an amazing eight of the nine tracks from the new album. Like a magician’s deft slight of hand, in the rapture of the prestige, none of us ever saw it happen. So, we concur there can really only be one word for it: Magic.

The Waterboys Setlist:

Destinies Entwined
Still A Freak
A Girl Called Johnny
November Tale
Glastonbury Song
Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy)
The Girl Who Slept For Scotland
Three Day Man
Nearest Thing To Hip
I Can See Elvis
The Whole Of The Moon
Don’t Bang The Drum
Fisherman’s Blues
Long Strange Golden Road

Purple Rain (Prince cover)

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