PO­ETIC LI­CENCE

The Wa­ter­boys are the stand out act in an ex­cep­tional sum­mer of mu­sic, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

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

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