Concert Review: The Waterboys, St. John’s, Newfoundland
The diversity of the audience that came to see The Waterboys at Holy Heart Theatre in St. John’s, Newfoundland on July 15 was a testament to this seminal UK band’s wide-ranging influence. You had bespectacled intellectuals, hippies in socks and sandals, suburbanites in golf shirts, and even a few drunks straight from the pub. Both the reserved and the rowdy gathered under one roof to usher in the band’s first public appearance in Atlantic Canada since their formation in 1983.
You can attribute this eclectic mixture of fans to 1988’s Fisherman’s Blues, which cast its potent spell of rock, traditional, country, and folk over the mainstream. This album unified people as much as it did genres. Even though it wasn’t the first Waterboys album, it was the first one with major distribution on this side of the Atlantic. As a result, people bought it in droves and subsequently started to comb back through earlier albums and also follow their progress henceforth. Their most recent album is a collection of original melodies and chord structures set to the poetry of William Butler Yeats, called An Appointment with Mr. Yeats. It’s their strongest album in years, and it is a prelude to an ambitious box set scheduled for a fall release called Fisherman’s Box, which will feature a huge collection of songs recorded during the Fisherman’s Blues era.
For this leg of the tour, The Waterboys had Newfoundland folk-pop duo Fortunate Ones as special guests. Featuring the real-life couple of Catherine Allan and Andrew James O’Brien, Fortunate Ones started with a stripped-down version of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” before launching into a tidy set of strong original material from O’Brien’s solo album Songs for Searchers and the duo’s upcoming debut album. The crowd showed enthusiastic appreciation for the duo as O’Brien expressed his excitement about playing the hallowed venue as well as sharing the stage with The Waterboys. Their stage presence communicated a refreshing idealism only possible in young musicians with a lifetime of music ahead of them.
After a short intermission, K-Rock’s Mike Campbell came out and simply roared, “Ladies and gentleman, The Waterboys!!” Mike Scott, Steve Wickham, and their American counterparts rushed out, grabbed their instruments, and went straight into The Waterboys’ biggest hit, “Fisherman’s Blues.” (I was expecting the more laid back “Strange Boat,” after seeing the setlists online from recent shows. But they saved it for second, opting to enter with a bang.) The crowd went crazy, jumping to their feet after fiddler Steve Wickham’s blistering solo shivered the rafters like a banshee from hell. Wickham is a force of nature on the fiddle – certainly one of the best in the world without a shred of exaggeration. His playing can be heard outside The Waterboys on recordings by such luminaries as Elvis Costello, Sinead O’Connor, and U2 (most notably their hit, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”).
The energy in the room was palpable as the band continued through a repertoire that borrowed from all periods of their career, including the brand new “Still A Freak” – a bluesy autobiographical number in a Dylan Blonde on Blonde-era style that tells of Scott’s unending commitment to the artistic fringes. Scott dug into some ragged Chuck Berry lead guitar on his green Gibson electric, and it rang through the theatre with rebellious abandon.
Another new song, “I Can See Elvis,” envisions the king of rock and roll in a band with Keith Moon and Charlie Parker and writing in a journal about “slitting the throat of the colonel.” The lyrics are characteristically Mike Scott: subversive, literary, and cynical with playful rhymes and meter that tie the delivery together.
About a half hour into the show, The Waterboys’ leader and creative visionary retreated to the piano and gave the audience a selection from the Yeats album, called “Song of the Wandering Aengus.” Scott sang the evocative lines with a mixture of emotion and careful articulation, and bassist Malcolm Gold ghosted Scott with an impressive, unwavering high harmony in the refrain.
While at the piano, Scott followed up with The Waterboys classic “Whole of the Moon.” Instead of playing the piano intro, he went straight into the first verse as the band kicked in on the second line. Although it took the audience a few seconds to process the song without the original intro, you could soon hear the stirring of applause upon recognition.
While playing their well-known song “Medicine Bow,” both Scott and Wickham flicked off a few leg kicks and showed off their dapper slacks. They’re classy dressers, have no doubt. They’re not afraid of gold sparkle scarves, pinstripe pants, and polka-dot shirts. This of course adds to the mystique and wandering minstrel vibe that the band has always emitted as part of their allure.
Coming out of a Scott-Wickham acoustic duo interlude, Scott briefly exited the stage as Wickham and guitarist Jay Barclay put on black beaked masks and danced around each other in a scorching guitar-fiddle duel. Scott returned a minute or two later, wearing a three-faced mask that silenced the audience into a frightened hush. He walked up to the microphone as the band chugged away, reciting Yeats’ apocalyptical poem “The Second Coming” with arresting and terrifying authority. It was a wonderful theatrical display.
After a few more perfectly executed tunes, such as “Don’t Bang the Drum” and “Hank,” Scott and his wandering minstrels bid adieu – but not before returning for a rollicking version of “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” It was a rather unexpected way to end a Waterboys show but nevertheless rendered well by the seasoned, creative players who rose to Scott’s challenge to “keep it country!” Drummer Chris Benelli proved on this number that he could do a country shuffle with the best of them.
The audience would definitely not have argued with more material from Fisherman’s Blues, nor would there have been any protest about “This is the Sea” being on the setlist. But in true Mike Scott form, this was to be no back-to-back hit retrospective but rather a rounded-out collection that looked forward as much it did back. And rightly so. The Waterboys are still relatively young in the grand scheme of aging rockers, and they’re obviously in the mood to tour. Their fall 2013 North American tour itinerary is the most extensive they’ve ever booked. And if the show is this hot in its initial stages, I can’t imagine where the band will be taking it by the time the fall tour is in full swing.
(Photos by Chris LeDrew)
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