The Waterboys have been a stalwart on the music scene for the best part of forty years. From first seeing them live in 1985, at Leeds Polytechnic (as it was then), to most recently in 2018, at Dublin Vicar Street, Mike Scott and The Waterboys have remained intriguing and profoundly artistic. Mr Scott indeed being arguably at least equal in his talents to the much-lauded Mr Dylan. However, for many folks, unfortunately, they still fly under the radar. That may well be because a crucial aspect of Scottish founder Mike Scott’s character, and appeal, has been his refusal to court commercial fame and fortune over his artistic integrity. Scott writes magnificently and sings with conviction, to express rather than impress.
This brief introduction to the Waterboys starts with Mike Scott at his much written about musical crossroads. It was late 1985 and three albums were in the bag; the eponymous ‘The Waterboys‘, ‘A Pagan Place‘ and ‘This is The Sea‘, and Scott and the Waterboys had perfected the sound which had become known as the ‘Big Music’. Commercial fame and fortune were at their fingertips when Scott shocked everyone by taking a dramatic change of direction. Frustrated that he couldn’t reproduce the “Big Music” sound on stage, he’d started listening to country, folk and old-style gospel music. He states in cover notes that he was “excited by the possibilities of writing and playing these different kinds of music, and by the liberating prospect of departing from the repeat-formula-for-success script that managers, agents, record companies, journalists and even fans were devising for me”.
At this point, Scott was joined by Irish fiddler Steve Wickham and mandolin player Anthony Thistlethwaite and the three started to play their own “open-horizoned style of acoustic roots music”. Scott tells of recording of the [initially critically slammed] ‘Fisherman’s Blues‘ album throughout 1986, resulting in “free-flowing, largely improvised music with elements of everything we’d been absorbing, performed with a high quotient of delight”. And so began his intense affiliation with inspirational sources that went back beyond the birth of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. To Scott and the Waterboys, they seemed “refreshingly free of the superficiality, pressure and cynicism that distorted the mainstream pop world”. They were fortunate enough to be guided, mentored if you like, by veteran Nashville record producer Bob Johnson. Scott states that “[Bob] transmitted something of the soul of country music… allowing us to pick up the history and spirit of country from him”. Scott also credits Dublin drummer Noel Bridgeman and his subtle and mature style with changing the way he felt about playing music. Adding, “from Noel, more than any other musician, I learned the quintessential country music lesson: how to say more by playing less” This mantra can be detected throughout The Waterboys’ subsequent recordings. Far from being sparse, however, they are elegant, exquisite, simply astounding. They thoroughly demonstrate the “thrilling expansion” of Scott’s musical consciousness.
The Waterboys have been many over the years, all sharing in the journey and underscoring that this is no one-man band. However, special mention must always go to Anthony Thistlethwaite and Steve Wickham for playing essential roles in creating the Waterboy identity.
The current lineup is;
Mike Scott – vocals, guitar, piano (1981–94, no Waterboys 95-97, 1998–present)
Steve Wickham – electric fiddle, mandolin (1985–90, 2001–present)
Ralph Salmins – drums (2011–present)
Brother Paul Brown – keyboards, backing vocals (2013–present)
Aongus Ralston – bass (2016–present)
Zeenie Summers – vocals (2017–present)
Jess Kavanagh – vocals (2017–present)
My top ten chosen songs are listed by chronology rather than favourites, which would be difficult. Choosing ten songs alone has been hard enough. Enjoy, and if this is your first introduction to the Waterboys, hopefully, you will go on to listen to more from this exceptional artist and band.
And see them live; it truly is a magnificent, unforgettable experience.
Number 10: ‘Fisherman’s Blues‘ from ‘Fisherman’s Blues‘ (1988)
“I wish I was a fisherman, Tumblin’ on the seas, Far away from dry land, And it’s bitter memories… With light in my head, With you in my arms…”
If the role of music is to fill one with joy and uplift & unify, this song truly fulfils the brief. Despite seemingly being about the pressures of a break-up, it is simply wonderful to be part of an audience swept up in the atmosphere and twirling, often with the band, to this song.
Number 9: ‘Strange Boat‘ from ‘Fishermans Blues‘ (1988)
“We’re sailing on a strange boat, heading for a strange shore.”
This song would appear to be a metaphor for the Waterboys’ musical transition from their punk pop-rock days to folk.
Released at a time when folk was far from fashionable and initially deemed commercial suicide, this album went on to become a modern classic. Scott himself says that if ‘Fishermans Blues‘ has a message to impart other than the pure expression of the music itself, it is this: “music is music, and no musician or band need be limited to any genre; all are fair territory for the questing musical explorer” Staying in the same vein, the album ‘Room to Roam‘ followed ‘Fisherman’s Blues‘.
Number 8: ‘In Search of a Rose‘ from ‘Room to Roam‘ (1990)
“Wherever I’m a-going I’ll go in search of a rose“.
This song is a very short but exquisite example of Scott’s lyrical prowess and his continual quest for the beauty in life.
Number 7: ‘How Long Will I Love You‘ from ‘Room to Roam‘ (1990)
“How long will I love you? As long as stars are above you, and longer if I may.”
Ever the eternal romantic, Scott has written many love songs. This is another fine example of his heartfelt but straightforward approach. Interestingly, it has only just been revealed that he has recently revisited it. He has re-sang it and “vibed it up”, and, he says, “it sounds fabulous”. ‘How Long Will I Love You 2021’ is for release as a 12″ single for record store day on Saturday 17th July, which is rather exciting. The song was also beautifully covered by Ellie Goulding back in 2013.
Number 6: ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy‘ from ‘Room to Roam‘ (1990)
“What care I for my goose feather bed, Wi’ blankets strewn so comely-o?, Tonight I lie in a wide open field, In the arms of a raggle taggle gypsy-o” A song from the Waterboys traditional canon. Not only a gifted writer and composer, Scott is also a skilled interpreter of traditional songs. A-twirling we go again to this vibrant crowd-pleaser with the Waterboys putting their own authentic stamp on this old folk song.
Number 5: ‘She Tried to Hold Me‘ from ‘Book of Lightning‘ (2006)
“She tried to hold me, She tried to hold me, She didn’t know, Love is letting go… She told me I was unrealistic, And then she went ballistic… I made it to the stairwell, In the street I muttered farewell… It took me six years to begin again, To feel secure in my own skin again… ” Easily mistaken for another love song, this one is actually about trying to break up. Scott is accompanied in this rather entertaining video by James Maddock, Dave Immergluck (Counting Crows), Mark Bosch (Ian Hunter Band), Irakli Gaprandishvili and others.
Number 4: ‘You In The Sky‘ from ‘Book of Lightning‘ (2006)
‘You alone of all, You in the sky, I want to know why clouds come in between you and I“. First appearing on ‘Fishermans Blues‘ Scott revisited & beautified this wonderful song even further several years later. Scott steps into the realms of heartbreak conjuring the spirit of one of his influences, Hank Williams, with this beautiful song.
Number 3: ‘Nearest Thing to Hip‘ from ‘Modern Blues‘ (2014)
“There used to be a café a few blocks away… It was the nearest thing to hip… But there’s a little record store with a wooden floor, That ain’t there no more that I used to frequent… It was the nearest thing to hip In this shithole and it’s gone“. We all know that feeling of appreciating our personal sanctuaries. Here Scott takes on the mantel of Ray Davies, absolutely nailing the need for individuality. Great that this is a collaboration as it is a shared concept.
Number 2: ‘Long Strange Golden Road‘ from ‘Modern Blues‘ (2014)
“Keep the river on your right, And the highway at your shoulder”. Mike Scott dispensing advice on guiding through the challenges of life.
Number 1: ‘Love Walks In‘ from ‘Out of all this Blue‘ (2017)
“When you walk in the room, love walks in with you. And I’m so in love with you, with you”
Regardless of life’s twists and turns, this song typifies the comfort of having someone we love in our lives.
And as a bonus…
This video has just premiered (22nd May) highlighting their immense musicality and versatility; The Waterboys repay a compliment to Prince with this epic cover.