ON STAGE WITH THE WATERBOYS 2003-5
When The Waterboys tour, one thing and one thing only is certain: it won't be the same as the last time. In the 5 years since the band started touring again, they've performed with over ten different line-ups, and have played shows of many different styles. We asked some friends and fans to write reports of some of the very different concerts that have taken place during the last two years; the period in which the new live album Karma To Burn was recorded.
1. THE FULL BAND TOUR, Autumn 2003
[This tour, the first to feature drummer
Carlos Hercules and bassist Steve Walters, ran through October/November
2003 in the UK, Ireland and Europe, and supplied many of the recordings
included on the Karma To Burn album. It was the second tour in support
of the Universal Hall album, the first, with drummer Geoff Dugmore
and bassist Brad Waissman, having spanned June-August 2003.]
The story is his story. Well, a chapter
of it anyway. The song is Long Way To The Light from one of Mike’s
1990s solo albums. Newly rearranged to feature Wickham’s fiddle
riff, it is recast as a Waterboys’ classic. Mike may be singing
about his spiritual journey and his personal pilgrimage to the Findhorn
community in Scotland, but the lyric is universal: “Living one
step at a time/Putting one foot in front of the other, it sure feels
right” and many people in the audience are singing right along
with him. Others are getting up out of their seats, itching to move
and sway to the music.
Steve is watching and waiting for his turn
to play, but Mike shakes his head at the fiddler – he’s
not ready to hand over yet. Not until he has bled every emotion he
can muster from his heart does Mike kick his leg to let Steve know
it is now his turn. By the time the song ends, fifteen minutes have
flown by. The crowd clap and stamp their feet in approval. And then
the calm after the storm as they perform Open, a serene devotional
song-prayer. The contrast couldn’t be more compelling.
2. MIKE & RICHARD'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE,
Tambourine players and the tympani drum player who hits his one and only note at the end of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture can be replaced on short notice. But Steve Wickham can't. So when he was forced to drop out of the US tour moments before it began, finding a replacement was impossible because there just wasn’t one to be found anywhere. Well, except maybe in the faery colonies of the Irish hills, but the faeries weren’t about to leave the Emerald Isle to entertain a bunch of heathens on the other side of the pond—even if Mike Scott promised them a pot of gold.
But though the faeries declined, they sprinkled some of their magical dust on the remaining Waterboys’ shoulders as Mike and Rich went off to America, allowing them to shimmer and shine in most unexpected ways.
The show opened with Mike’s announcement that it was "myself and Richard, a unique tour, with the smallest Waterboys lineup ever." The crowd, being New Yorkers, adjusted appropriately and applauded. We're used to constant interruptions in what we consider normal, which is good because from the moment we entered the hall this did not feel like a standard rock and roll show. Town Hall is in the Theatre District and the Broadway atmosphere crept into the Hall. You almost expected to hear the rustle of programmes before the entertainment began. There would be no mosh pit at this show; with the audience sitting, our attention was fully riveted on the action on the stage.
They opened with Universal Hall. The fiddle provides the melody line on the recorded version, but tonight the piano carried it. On Ain’t No Words for the Things That I’m Feeling, piano came again to the forefront, as the notes of the melody rang out like bells over the quiet audience. Then Bring Em’ All In was carried by a driving intensity like the gathering excitement of someone going to meet a lover.
In many ways, the power of a show like this rests not only in the talent of the performers but with the songwriting itself. Without a band, there is no sound to camouflage a flimsy melody or to imbue limp lyrics with sentiment. Fortunately, these songs proved to be well-crafted and held up well under the scrutiny of sparse instrumentation.
The only rendition that fell flat was When Ye Go Away. Not because the song isn’t wonderful (the studio version is one of the Waterboys’ finest moments); tonight, however, they played it at a faster pace, and this dulled the song's mystical beauty.
The first half concluded with Sweet Thing, which Mike cleverly segued into Blackbird with a charming tale of wandering around New York in the wee hours of the morning. He wandered onto a pier in Chelsea, happy to find solitude, only to find another lost soul sitting by the river. Miraculously, when Mike spoke to her, she answered with the lyrics to Blackbird. What a magical city we live in! Or did he just imagine it, due to lack of sleep?
The second half began with Gala, which Mike told us had never been played in New York before. The aching sadness of the song was intensified by the lonely tones of the solo piano. As with all the numbers, the minimal instrumentation shifted the focus to Mike's singing and his voice was in top form. For several songs he didn't even play guitar, such as Love and Death, where he found a beautiful melody in Yeats' lyrics; lyrics not written to be sung, but inherently musical.
On Don’t Bang The Drum Mike and Richard created dramatic tension with sudden stops, rising and falling volume, and plaintive vocals alternating with lush piano breaks. The result was an intense rendition that ended with Mike’s soaring vocals, as he held the last note for an impossibly long time before crashing into a painful cry.
Like When Ye Go Away, I didn’t think The Pan Within could be done without Steve, but my expectations were dashed. The instrumentation became more and more multi-layered as Richard added intricate melodies. The intensity of the performance swept us up and we forgot there were only two musicians onstage. When Mike gave the final triumphant Ah!, the audience rewarded them with a standing ovation. If the test of good song is holding up with sparse instrumentation, The Pan Within would sound good on a tin can and washboard!
Mike swung into a spirited version of Fisherman’s Blues. The audience was now so involved that everyone became a backup singer and percussionist with clapping hands filling in for drums. When Mike and Richard returned for an encore of Always Dancing, Never Getting Tired, the audience continued with claps and shouts, Mike commenting at the end that it was “great to be back in New York and to find you in such terrific voice.”
The final number, Come Live With Me, was dazzling. This song is such a jewel, and performed here with poignant, evocative vocals and shimmering piano, it was luminescent.
It is in unplanned moments that true talent is revealed. Other musicians might have cowered at the idea of going on the road with a third of their sound missing and having to redo all their arrangements overnight. Fortunately, fans of the Waterboys were treated to a performance by two outstanding professionals who proved their mettle with humour and dedication.
3. WITH THE SPANGLERS, Easter 2004
Recently I looked over the notes I took while organising the Findhorn Foundation’s Spirit of Healing Conference. With days to go the Conference was fully booked, with 400 guests and presenters due from all over the world.
Mike Scott and David Spangler were to be part of the opening ceremony. David is a spiritual teacher, writer and former Findhornian now living in Seattle, whose teachings have been and still are influential in the Findhorn Community, and who was attending the conference as a presenter. I knew Mike respected David's teachings and admired the music of The New Troubadours, David's band who made soul stirring music at Findhorn in the early 1970s.
I was intrigued to see how this musical marriage of two of our favourite sons would work. David hadn’t performed in many years and while I knew Mike would relish performing The New Troubadours' spirit-soaked songs, I hoped the differences and decades would blend harmoniously.
In the event Mike and David performed two short concerts on consecutive evenings in Universal Hall, joined by David’s wife Julie, also a New Troubadours vocalist, and Waterboys keyboard wiz, Richard Naiff. On the first night David jokingly said they had named themselves The Droplets.
Looking back now, the concerts were among the most joyful I’ve ever seen. The sight of a portly David throwing himself into the role of front man for a rock band was inspiring. Dollops of joy came through vintage New Troubadours songs Winds Of Birth and Change Can Come. I especially enjoyed their versions of Mike’s Bring ‘Em All In, with Mike, David and Julie singing a verse each, and the Troubadours' classic In My Name. Mike also unveiled a new untitled song, freshly written by David and himself.
At the second concert lyric sheets were passed around for The Love Affirmation and what ensued was community singing with a difference: profound and magical. I left feeling that Joy, rather than The Droplets, was their true name!
4. THE ALL-ACOUSTIC TOUR, Autumn 2004
The music made on The Waterboys' autumn tour of 2004 of Britain was made by just three men, but that's all that was needed.
The three were: Mike Scott (vocals, guitar),
Steve Wickham (fiddle, mandolin) and Richard Naiff (keyboards, flute).
And the music was enchanted, as if graced by some presence. There
seems to be something otherwordly about the way these fellows play.
As soon as Scott starts to sing, as soon as Wickham and Naiff play
their first notes, the very air is charged.
But it's on the improvised songs that the
trio really leave you speechless.....like during Van Morrison's Sweet
Thing where the interplay is spellbinding. They watch one another
for clues, taking solos and chances, pushing the song into new shapes,
into places it has never been before. Steve often saves his sweetest
flights of fancy for this song, and Mike and Richard let him soar
as high as he can before Mike sings the lines from The Beatles' Blackbird
that announce the song is approaching the end of its journey. Guitar,
piano and fiddle sound a series of playful pizzicato notes in unison,
in a musical smile, and they finish as they began, gloriously together.
Mike jokes with us that Sweet Thing now belongs to the Waterboys and
that Van can't have it back.
5. MIKE, STEVE AND SHARON SHANNON, November
The acoustic version of The Waterboys was further acousticised by the absence of Richard Naiff who was called home due to illness. It’s never a perfect world but never mind; when Mike and Steve walked onstage at The Forum and sat down for a session we knew we’d be alright.
Bring ‘Em All In was number one. No,
not number one in the American charts but the first song of the night.
If it had also been the last song and they’d walked offstage
I’d have gone home happy. Four minutes or so of sheer perfection.
What is it? One voice, one guitar, one violin, that’s all. But
the overall sound is full, sure, and expressive, the three sounds
working off each other and weaving a fine tapestry, the violin dipping
and soaring like a seagull. Just as it should be. The Waterboys. In
Waterford. This is the sea!
After the break the boys return with a watergirl in tow as a roar of approval greets the arrival of Sharon Shannon. It’s a natural bridge without the blues. I’m still missing Richard (who I’ve never seen or heard performing live) but Sharon is a consolation prize out of the top drawer. Just as Mike & Steve were seamless as a two-piece, Sharon now gives them the edge to express and push this strange and beautiful boat further out into the deep. I often have a problem sorting out the sounds when fiddle and “box” play together, but not tonight.
We’re treated to A Man Is In Love, When Ye Go Away, and a set of jigs. In mid-song (or tune) you can hear the open spaces and melodic respect that Sharon and Steve give to each other while Mike holds it together and brings ‘em all in on driving guitar, centrestage.
No mean achievement. A bandwagon working on two cylinders and an altered chassis ending up with a standing ovation. WWW. Waterboys Waterford Wonderful. I drive home like a cannon in the rain.
6. MIKE'S FINDHORN SHOW, March 2005
With its wooden construction and huge stained
glass windows, well-known from the CD cover of Universal Hall, the
building of the same name was the location for an extraordinary performance
by Mike and Richard.
The set matched the 'song and story-telling' subject of the conference. The Wedding was about a grotesque marriage with a fatal ending for some of its protagonists. It has never appeared on an album and its plot was so dramatically different from other Waterboys' lyrics, I could hardly believe my ears!
The repertoire included songs written by others, like Love and Death (lyric by W.B. Yeats), In My Name (lyric by David Spangler, music by Milenko Matanovic), Accentuate The Positive (an old jazz song written by Johnny Mercer), Your Cheatin' Heart (Hank Williams), and Passing Through (old country/gospel song).
Through the concert Mike and Richard merged into a unity, connected by invisible strings. Never did I see such a splendid duo! But the strong energy not only existed between the two of them, visible and perceptible for everyone; we all became part of the event when Mike sang:
"Five-sided cosmic theatre in The Park
This new song, This Is Where I Live, interwove musicians, audience, location and time; all became part of a unique moment, everybody connected with everyone and everything.
The indisputable highlight was The Pan Within. Before the song started Mike and Richard teased each other playfully by tossing chords back and forth at each other. It was fun to watch, as if the performance were a private concert for friends. Then they started this song in honour of the ancient god whose spirit is part of Findhorn. They played gently, then turned up the rhythm, Mike bent over guitar, holding it as if it were a wild animal that had to be tamed, playing his chords, singing, approaching Richard, dancing back to the microphone. The vibrations shook the floor of the Hall; the building seeming to sing this ecstatic song for the Greek god of wild places. Richard sat, shoulders and back shaking, hair flashing to the rhythm. The instruments played the musicians, merging into a divine unity. It seemed as if Pan was leaping out, using both musicians and instruments to say: I am alive!
It was a de luxe version of his hymn, lasting
10 minutes. How could they go on and on and on without losing power
and strength? After the final crescendo everyone rose for standing
ovations and the person next to me shook my arm and asked me, "Are
you still with us?" I was entranced and unable to answer. "Didn't
you know that everything is bigger and better in Findhorn?" she
asked and smiled, "They don't do normal around here!"
The next day the first of four daily lunchtime meditations led by Mike took place at the main Sanctuary in Findhorn at 1.15 pm.
The participants were not the same every day; there was no constant group, but Mike's wife and some Findhorn community members regularly attended. Mike always greeted us with "Welcome everybody" and after having explained what the meditation would be about, started it with the sound of a singing bowl.
On the first day Richard was there too. They played the song Open, well chosen to open our hearts, then we all sat in silence.
On the second day the meditation comprised five poems by Hafiz, the 14th century Persian poet, read by Mike's gentle voice, and the voices of several community members.
During the third day's meditation we listened to recordings of two pieces by Mozart, which Mike described as "light transformed into music". In between there was silence for meditation again. The birds outside started singing and RAF airplanes [from neighbouring Kinloss air base] could be heard as well. At the end Mike said: "Let's thank the birds and the RAF for enthusiastically joining in", a remarkably tolerant point of view!
The fourth day was a guided meditation by American author David Spangler, entitled Nine Steps to a God Space. Mike read this with intermissions to give us time to follow each step.
At the end Mike thanked us for coming and acknowledged the honour of our having had Eileen Caddy [one of the community founders] with us during these meetings. We all left deeply touched and with gratitude.
7. ELECTRIC REUNION, GALWAY, 5 May 2005
In 1988 I was drumming with a few local
lads, writing songs and calling themselves The Sawdoctors. This was
in County Galway, Ireland, on the Atlantic edge of Europe, a place
far removed from the centres of rock and roll music-making back then.
We felt like pioneers. Then along came the Waterboys, recording Fisherman's
Blues at nearby Spiddal House. They were friendly and supportive to
the local musicians, and later asked The Sawdocs to play support on
a tour, a big break for us. I listened to the Waterboys over fifty
times during that tour, and always thrilled to their magic.
By the time I'd found a vantage point the
opening guitar chords of Strange Boat - my favourite - were being
played. Fran's drumming started, crisp and powerful, and Anto's tasteful
and inventive bass took up the theme. A great live band was at work,
and as the singing started everyone was drawn in and became part of
the occasion. Steve stomped on a pedal, and swung into a fiddle solo.
The music lifted in intensity.
From that moment they were cruising. Medicine Bow, The Pan Within, Killing My Heart and Fisherman's Blues followed in quick succession, a feast from the band's back catalogue.
When I'd toured with them in '89, Mike, Steve and Anto were the front line, prowling the stage, moving like dancers and producing that mysterious blend of Waterboys Celtic gumbo. They looked great, each with his own style and persona. Anto was the archetypal English rocker flouting hats, scarves and feathers, sax, mandolin, blues-harp and Hammond organ with equal aplomb and virtuosity.
His role was different tonight. Standing
still in front of his amplifier to the right of Fran's red Remo drum
kit, he was sombre and serious, concentrating on the music and producing
a massive 'antosound' from his Gibson cello-bodied bass guitar.