A TUESDAY EVENING IN A STATE OF THE ART CONCERT HALL IN A FAIRLY UNASSUMING NORTHERN TOWN IS NEITHER THE TIME NOR PLACE MANY WOULD EXPECT TO ENCOUNTER A PSYCHEDELIC CACOPHONY, OVER WHICH A MASKED MAN RECITES PASSAGES WRITTEN BY WB YEATS IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR.
The Waterboys’ last album – 2011’s AN APPOINTMENT WITH MR YEATS – was based entirely on the Dubliner’s poetry. A long term influence on songwriter Mike Scott, here in Scunthorpe’s airy Baths Hall in 2014 lines from 1919’s THE SECOND COMING are unleashed during MAD AS THE MIST AND SNOW. Yeats’ poem predicted the spiritual anarchy which would occur around 2000 years after the birth of Christ and to illustrate the tempest the band don Venetian-carnival style plague doctor masks (black, beaked and nightmarish) while Scott becomes a three-faced harbinger of doom. The theme of faith runs throughout the middle section of the show (GLASTONBURY SONG) though it’s never as spectacularly relayed. In the main, this is a straightforward rock gig and not some patchouli-scented revisitation of FOXTROT-era Genesis theatrics.
Beginning with a trio of songs from seminal 1988 album FISHERMAN’S BLUES (the stirring title track, serene STRANGE BOAT and brisk WE WILL NOT BE LOVERS) plus piano-pounding 1983 debut single and Patti Smith tribute A GIRL CALLED JOHNNY, it’s immediately apparent that The Waterboys is a well-drilled crew able to navigate the whims of its captain and change tack instantly. Steering band through highs and lows with often discreet visual cues (curiously reminiscent of Van Morrison’s ability to turn an evening on the arch of an eyebrow), Scott alters the dynamics of songs as they happen. Keyboard player Paul Brown (a mad scientist let out of the lab to operate Hammond organ with soul glow) and stalwart violinist Steve Wickham (a bitter-drinking geography teacher whose fiddle describes his feelings) are gregarious characters offering particularly impassioned service to Scott’s Celtic-folk imbued writing. A brace of new songs – STILL A FREAK and another which appears to be titled KEEP THE RIVER ON YOUR RIGHT – suggests a slightly more prosaic blues-rock direction for the next album.
Towards the end a singalong THE WHOLE OF THE MOON and stripped HOW LONG WILL I LOVE YOU? are aired. Both are finely crafted – the former The Waterboys’ big hit (in 1985 and again in 1991), the latter recently covered by chart starlet Ellie Goulding. In the context of the rest of tonight’s performance they’re sore thumbs, token gestures, when all else has felt like one man following his muse with no little intensity. Whether doing so has been self-indulgent or artistically admirable depends on your point of view but, either way, there’s no denying the potency of sweet and simple closer AND A BANG ON THE EAR.
Photo by Paul MacManus