Mike Scott and his raggle-taggle gypsies burn the place down on the Modern Blues tour
Fresh off of a performance on the David Letterman show the night before (see link at bottom) Mike Scott and the current incarnation of The Waterboys played a blistering set on 2015.04.21 at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA.
After an engaging opening set by Woodstock New York’s Connor Kennedy, Scott and his merry gang took the stage with Scott in Western garb and black hat, high-energy and ready for a storming evening of folk-inflected Celtic-flavored rock.
The set focused on songs from their outstanding new “Modern Blues” album with some new arrangements of classic Waterboys cuts thrown in for good measure. It’s always a positive sign when a band that’s toured for more than three decades (!) at this point is so confident and happy with the recent material that the show emphasizes the newest songs. That the material was so well-received by a crowd ready to hear the classic hits is a testament to the Modern Blues song-cycle’s strength.
Of course, since the Waterboys collective frequently rotates in new members under the Waterboys banner it stands to reason that the band is always reinventing itself. In addition to Head Waterboy Scott and founding-member electric fiddle whiz Steve Wickham, the current lineup boasts an amazingly skilled iineup of musicians including long-time drummer Ralph Salmins, fluid guitarist Zach Ernst (who appears younger than the debut Waterboys album), Muscle Shoals bass player David Hood and the indomitable, indescribable Brother Paul from Memphis on keyboards.
Each incarnation of the Waterboys has a distinct group personality, and the current version is no different. Taking their cue from Modern Blues, this is a straight-ahead, driving rock show propelled by Salmins, Scott and Ernst with Wickham and Brother Paul then pulling and tugging on the melodies and rhythms to create the distinct musical colors and shapes of Waterboys songs.
There were fewer long improvisational passages among the band members than I’ve seen at some Waterboys shows, but the passion, soul, spirit and infectious energy of the best of Waterboys shows was still in full effect. Scott in particular played with renewed energy and vitality belying thirty years of touring, seated only when playing the keyboards and spending most of the show moving and dancing as he played. It’s clear that he is both justly proud of the new material and believes in it, and he really is able to sell it to the crowd. This version of the Waterboys plays with the skill and practice of a mature band but with the passion and energy of a young band.
They had played some of the Modern Blues songs like “Still A Freak” and “I Can See Elvis” in their fall 2013 North American tour, including locally in Washington DC at the 930 club, but at that show the songs were still like new shoes that hadn’t been broken in yet, and even though there were some personnel changes from that show, it’s clear that these songs have now been worn in and are being played with a confidence gainsaying the newness of the songs and newness of this combo as a playing unit.
While I was disappointed not to hear “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland” from the new album, they did play most of the songs from Modern Blues and also mixed in some of the crowd-pleasing classics. “Still A Freak”, “November Tale” and “Long Strange Road” were particularly sharp.
Here was “Still A Freak”:
All of the older songs sounded fantastic and as fresh now as when newly-minted. “Girl Called Johnny” galloped with Scott at the keyboards and Wickham providing the accents and they stone-cold nailed the audience favorite “Whole Of The Moon”. “Fisherman’s Blues” was a rousing sing-along encore and the old classic “Three Day Man” was a pleasant surprise.
Here was “Fisherman’s Blues”:
For me the highlights of the heritage material were the driving, pulsing version of the Fisherman’s Blues classic “We Will Not Be Lovers” and a spellbinding, showstopping version of “Don’t Bang The Drum” with just Scott and Wickham, both below:
Steve Wickham continues to provide the spice that makes the Waterboys such an interesting meal. Wickham plays with a mesmerizing lyricism and flow that provides color and character to each song. Although I’ve seen Scott play without Wickham, together they are magic; watching them up close they communicate with just a glance as they shift rhythms, speed and volumes. They play with the synergy that only comes with a lifetime of playing together.
You can’t discuss this incarnation of the Waterboys without focusing on the whirling dervish of a keyboard player that is Brother Paul. Brother Paul is a marvel to watch, a kinetic bundle of energy just short of exploding at all times, whipping his hair around and beaming the entire time. He plays in an extremely animated and thoroughly enjoyable style, throwing his hands at the keyboards like a wizard casting spells on the keys. There were a couple of times where after a particular flourish, Brother Paul would look over to Scott like a child caught in the cookie jar asking tacit forgiveness. Brother Paul’s ageless enthusiasm is a real joy to behold, and worth the price of admission alone.
One practical tip: with all apologies to Ernst and Hood who while virtuoso musicians keep a low profile onstage, try to work your way over to audience-left (stage-right) which is the area that Wickham and Brother Paul inhabit. They’re worth seeing up close.
Scott can be a mercurial performer, and you know you’re at a classic Waterboys show when at some point Scott has to berate the crowd for misbehaving and you’re treated to an “aw, snap” moment. In this case, during a particularly quiet passage in “Song Of The Wandering Aengus“ (from the 2011 tribute album to W.B. Yeats poetry called “An Appointment With Mr. Yeats”) the rather noisy crowd was clearly bothering Scott who stopped the song about 30 seconds in and sternly addressed the throng:
“Perhaps we should play more quietly so that you can hear each other talk more clearly?”.
The crowd went stone silent for 15 seconds or so and Scott was content to let the silence linger. Then he calmly restarted the song and within a few seconds the crowd was back in the swing. Classic.
In short, it’s great to see Mike Scott and The Waterboys at the top of their game 31 years after they first toured the US. If you have the opportunity to see them play in your town, by all means treat yourself to one of the finest rock bands extant. If they’re not coming to your town, you need to move to a better town. Life’s too short not to fill it with great live music from a masterful group.
Setlist from the show as best I remember:
Still A Freak
Girl Called Johnny
We Will Not Be Lovers
Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy)
Three Day Man
Nearest Thing To Hip
I Can See Elvis
Song Of Wandering Aengus
Whole Of The Moon
Don’t Bang The Drum
Long Strange Road
Waterboys on David Letterman the previous evening doing “The Girl Who Slept For Scotland”:
For more information on Mike Scott, The Waterboys and Connor Kennedy see: