The Waterboys are the stand out act in an exceptional summer of music, writes Iain Shedden
IT’S remarkable that in the 30 years, numerous line-ups and many musical incarnations of the Waterboys that the band has never made it to Australia. ‘‘ I was waiting till we were good enough,’’ jokes the band’s founder, songwriter, frontman and mainstay, Scotsman Mike Scott, speaking on the eve of his band’s Australian tour debut in January.
The Waterboys tour is one of the main summer attractions on the rock circuit during the next six weeks. The band’s visit includes a performance at the Sydney Festival, an event that also hosts Archie Roach, Dirty Projectors and David Byrne & St Vincent.
There’s plenty of diversity across the country in January as well, with Keith Urban, Elvis Costello and Red Hot Chili Peppers among the big names beginning tours early in the new year.
Scott’s remark about not being good enough can be taken with a pinch of salt. Even without a stage presence here the Waterboys have enjoyed success in Australia, particularly in their 1980s heyday when albums such as A
Pagan Place, This Is the Sea and Fisherman’s Blues brought them international acclaim. In that period the group, formed in Britain by Edinburgh-born Scott, flitted from anthemic rock to Irish-influenced country-folk. Since the group’s hiatus in the 90s Scott has gone on to tour and record in a variety of styles as a solo artist and as the Waterboys.
His first visit to Australia follows another change of pace, last year’s Waterboys album
An Appointment with Mr Yeats, which, as the title suggests, sets to music the poetry of WB Yeats, one of several poets who have had a profound influence on Scott.
It’s a project the singer has been toying with for decades (the last song on the album, The
Faery’s Last Song, was written in 1991). Scott’s relationship with the Irish poet, one of the giants of 20th-century literature, dates back even further, to his English studies at school and university.
The 54-year-old, who flits between homes in Dublin and New York, has been on the road with the Yeats project since 2010, well before the album was released, and although the coming Australian tour will incorporate all strands of the Waterboys catalogue, the group’s performance at Sydney Festival will be centred on that latest work.
Scott says he feels a common bond with the artistic and cultural interests of Yeats, who died in 1939. ‘‘ For me he’s of interest because of his subject matter,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’m interested in what he’s interested in — Ireland, the old world, the mystic, mythology. Then there are more general subjects such as politics. Also, I like in many of his poems the way they line and scan. When I read his poetry in my 20s, I realised then that a lot of them worked with music.’’
Among the poems Scott has adapted to the Waterboys brief are The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Song of Wandering Aengus and Mad As the Mist and Snow. In some of the 14 tracks on the album Scott endeavours to adhere to the meter of Yeats’s original work, while in others he takes licence, allowing the words to flow more freely over the Waterboys’ anthemic and occasionally sprightly structures.
The reason he took so long to record the album, he explains, was that he had to wait for copyright restrictions on Yeats’s collected works — more than 600 poems — to be lifted, which happened in 2009, 70 years after the poet’s death. ‘‘ We premiered our show in Dublin three months after that date,’’ Scott points out.
He had sought permission previously from Yeats’s estate to interpret some of his work, with changes, but was denied, although he has recorded exact readings of Yeats’s work before. A version of The Stolen Child appeared on Fisherman’s Blues, while another poem, Love and Death, appeared on the band’s 1993 album Dream Harder. Scott recorded another poem, A Song of the Rosy-Cross, with Irish singer Sharon Shannon for the 1997 compilation album Now and in Time To Be.
‘‘ Because I had made little changes to the poems . . . sometimes turning them into two poems or even three poems to make them
work, I would have to have got permission from his estate — and I understand their point; they see themselves as custodians of the Yeats estate. They would give permission, but not for any changes that were made. So it was in my interest to wait until the copyright period was over.’’ SCOTT got to grips with Yeats, along with other poets such as Robert Burns and George MacDonald, during his period at the University of Edinburgh studying English literature and philosophy, but he abandoned his degree after a year when he got swept up in the musical revolution of the British punk scene in 1977. His first band, the Bootlegs, evolved into the more successful Another Pretty Face, which enjoyed critical acclaim for a handful of releases between 1978 and 1982, but by then Scott, now based in London, had become disillusioned with the band’s direction and began writing material for what would become the Waterboys’ self-titled debut album, released in 1983.
The nucleus of the band for the albums that followed was Scott, multi-instrumentalist Anthony Thistlethwaite and guitarist, keyboards player and singer Karl Wallinger. Following the success of the album This Is the Sea and its single The Whole of the Moon, the band’s biggest hit, Wallinger left to form his own band, World Party, which went on to have an equally successful career.
Scores of musicians have been through the ranks of the Waterboys since then. One survivor from This Is the Sea is violinist Steve Wickham, who also plays on An Appointment with Mr Yeats and who will be one of the musicians accompanying Scott to Australia.
Looking back, Scott has mixed feelings about the unparalleled success he and his band enjoyed in the 1980s. ‘‘ I’m the same person now,’’ he says, ‘‘ but I was lonelier back then. I felt very much alone when I was making those records. And yes . . . pressured. I hadn’t really found my audience, although I had some good collaborators. And I hadn’t found the place ELSEWHERE on the circuit, there is much to enjoy next month, starting with the touring Big Day Out festival, which begins in Sydney
Main picture, Mike Scott, and, below, WB Yeats; opposite page, from left, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Elvis Costello and Kasey Chambers are all performing in
the new year