By Jason M. Rubin
The Waterboys has always existed as Mike Scott’s vehicle for his egalitarian musical vision.
With three new albums in the last four years — including Where The Action Is, released in May — the Waterboys are on something of a roll. The band, comprising mostly Irishmen and Englishmen and led by the charismatic Scottish singer-guitarist-composer Mike Scott, started out in the early ’80s with a series of horn-based rock-soul albums (and one hit single, 1985’s “Whole of the Moon”), then morphed into a country-folk outfit for the classic Fisherman’s Blues in 1988 (the title track of which appeared in the movie Good Will Hunting) and a similarly styled but less successful follow-up, Room to Roam, in 1990. It was three years before the “band” was heard from again, though the resulting Dream Harder was more of a guitar-based album featuring just Scott backed by a score of mostly American session musicians.
Dropping the Waterboys name altogether, Scott released two solo albums in 1995 and 1997, then surprisingly released a new Waterboys album, A Rock in the Weary Land, in 2000, blending hard rock, psychedelia, and a touch of gospel and grunge. But over the next 11 years, only three other albums of new material were released. Happily, starting with Modern Blues in 2015 and continuing with Out Of All This Blue in 2017 and the new one, Mike Scott has seemingly found his groove again. The band is performing in both eastern and western Massachusetts next week: Wednesday, September 18, at The Wilbur Theatre in Boston, and Thursday, September 19, at The Calvin Theatre in Northampton.
Scott credits his recent burst of productivity to having moved back to Dublin, where he spent the very fertile Fisherman’s Blues-era phase of his life and career. “It’s a great place for songwriting,” he says. “I have a home studio and I’m always interacting with musicians so it’s easier to make records now.”
Though the Waterboys personnel has changed frequently over the years — longtime fiddler Steve Wickham is the only band member with sufficient tenure to warrant being known as Scott’s second banana and primary onstage foil — the band has always existed as Scott’s vehicle for his egalitarian musical vision. The music these days combines elements from throughout the group’s history, blending guitar and fiddle, rock and soul, highly literate lyrics, and, to the consternation of some fans, an increasing use of hip hop-influenced rhythms. Onstage, Scott and Wickham are supported by keyboardist “Brother” Paul Brown (from Memphis, the only American in the band), bassist Aongus Ralston, and drummer Ralph Salmins, all of whom have a few years of Waterboys experience under their belts.
“My goal has always been to follow the music wherever it takes us,” says Scott. “I set out to have an ever changing band. I knew the music would always change. I grew up listening to artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, where every album sounded different from the one before it. To me, that’s the normal state of affairs for an artist. I’ve enjoyed having a changing lineup but I also enjoy having a very steady lineup like we have now.”
Though he maintains a loyal following, there are fans and more than a few music critics who lament that every succeeding Waterboys release is not another Fisherman’s Blues. For those fanatics, Scott compiled a seven-CD boxed set in 2013 with more than 100 unreleased tracks and alternate takes reflecting the two-and-a-half years it took to exhaust that concept in the studio. It’s always hard to replicate success and harder still to leave the past behind. That Scott continually looks ahead and consistently takes every musical side street that strikes his fancy — his fans’ expectations be damned — is the sign of an artist with integrity.
Still, fans are a demanding lot and it seems impossible to imagine a Waterboys concert without such fan favorites as “Whole of the Moon” and “Fisherman’s Blues.” Is that annoying to an artist like Scott who likes to focus on the new?
“Not at all,” he says. “I love playing both of those songs and I play them because I like them, not because I’m obliged to. I would never play a song out of some sense of obligation. I don’t feel I have to do anything but satisfy my hunger and my artistic desires. I know that most people buy concert tickets to hear songs from their youth, but when I go to a concert, I want to see the artist being creative and extemporizing.”
For those with open ears, Where The Action Is is a strong blend of classic Scott rockers like the title track, philosophical singer-songwriter fare like “In My Time on Earth,” an homage to the Clash’s Mick Jones (“London Mick”), nakedly emotional songs (“And There’s Love” and “Right Side of Heartbreak”), the grooving autobiographical “Ladbroke Grove Symphony,” and the delightful indulgence of “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” a nine-minute recitation of an excerpt from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows set to music.
The Waterboys last played North America in 2015. Scott recalls that when they played the Calvin, the lights in the “C” were out, so it said the “Alvin Theatre,” and he improvised a song, “Here We Are at the Alvin,” onstage that night (and if anyone has a tape of it, he’d like to hear it).
Next week’s Calvin date was changed from Friday, September 20, to Thursday, September 19. All tickets purchased for the 20th will be valid for the 19th. The reason for the change was to accommodate a live radio broadcast. Moving the Northampton date means the band will now play six shows in a row, not seven. In a message to fans, Scott said, “I can’t sing seven nights in a row without losing some of my voice, so we’ve moved The Calvin by a day which makes a big difference. We need this broadcast because wide radio promotion isn’t something we often get offered in North America. I’m really sorry that this means everyone who bought tickets to The Calvin has to bring their night out forward by a day, especially as the original date was a Friday. We will pull out all the stops to make it up to you and will make The Calvin a super special show.”
I have tickets for both Boston and Northampton, so I am eager to see if Scott lives up to his word. As a longtime Waterboys fan, I’m not worried.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 33 years, the last 18 of which as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for The Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, combines in a single volume an updated version of his first novel with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, depicting the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.