DC's venerable 9:30 Club rarely does seated shows, so the announcement that this appearance by the Waterboys, touring Northern America for the first time in six years, would be a sit-down affair was a bit of a surprise. But when you do the math - it's been 30 years since Mike Scott founded his iconic Celtic rock outfit - maybe it made sense that the audience would be...let's just say, in an older demographic, and might prefer to watch from a comfy chair.
But any thought that this would be A) an old, passive crowd or B) simply a nostalgic affair, was instantly squashed when Scott and his five-piece band took to the stage and began a nearly two-hour show of sizzling, literate rock. The night began with a one-two punch of "Strange Boat" and the title track of "Fisherman's Blues," an album that may be 25 years old, but forged a rootsy sound with trad instrumentation that is a touchstone for much of what's currently happening with Decemberist Mumford and the Sons of the
And there's nothing old about the way Scott and longtime musical cohort Steve Wickham interact on stage. The pair's longstanding partnership is as much a joy to watch as it is to listen to, a combination of stunning musicianship and intuitive understanding. Whether Scott was sitting at the electric piano for a call back to the Waterboys' very first release, "A Girl Called Johnny" or wielding a guitar for the biting "We Will Not Be Lovers," Wickham's electric fiddle was a solid, supportive presence, bobbing and weaving through Scott's anthemic material, pushing it to greater intensity.
Wickham also was able to create unusual - and awesome - effects with his instrument, like the gentle cry of a seagull to the coda for "White Birds," a power ballad in the true sense of the word, taken from The Waterboys' most recent release, "An Appointment with Mr. Yeats," in which Scott composed music to the poetry of classic Irish poet William Butler Yeats.
The "...Mr. Yeats" album provided three track for the night (you can see the full set list and read some comments from Scott in a recent interview with this writer), including "Song of Wandering Aengus," with Scott back at the keyboard and guitarist Jim Barclay providing a searing, celestial guitar solo. The other Yeats/Scott tune, "Mad As the Mist and Snow," escalated with Wickham and Barclay in black masks, engaging in a violin/guitar duel that had the pair circling each other with menace while Scott left the the stage, returning in a creepy multi-faced mask (see the slideshow) for a recitation from Yeats's apocalyptic poem "Second Coming" ("Things fall apart/The centre cannot hold").
The night had numerous moods, from the bluesy and playful takes, respectively, on two new tunes, "Still a Freak," and "I Can See Elvis,", to the exuberance of the deservedly big hit, "The Whole of the Moon," to the traditional folk elements of "When Ye Go Away" and "Raggle-Taggle Gypsy."
Kudos, too, to the venue's sound technicians, who found the sweet spot where, even at high volume, one could appreciate the nuances of each instrument (especially important for Wickham's fiddle) while bringing all the players together with a power that felt less like a band and more like an orchestra.
Things came to a climax with a full-on rock attack with "This Is the Sea"'s kick-off track, "Don't Bang the Drum," punctuated with howls and yips that supported the primal imagery of the lyrics ("like monkeys do"). An encore was obvious, but well planned, starting with a fiddle tune called "Steve's Jolly Jig," passing through another "Fisherman's Blues" track, "You In the Sky," and wringing out any remaining unspent energy with a version of "This Is The Sea"'s "Be My Enemy" that ended in a tumultuous, sweet cacophony not once, not twice, but three times.
Venue posters had promised that The Waterboys would present "A night of musickal (sic) fireworks and improvisations." With a minimum of gimmickry and maximum emphasis on songcraft and musicianship, the event delivered on both counts. Which could those younger whippersnappers a thing or two.
Remaining dates of The Waterboys' current tour:
Oct. 25 - Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY
Oct. 27 - Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, GA
Oct. 29 - Civic Theatre, New Orleans
Oct. 30 - Belmont Civic Center, Austin, TX
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