One of my favorite aspects of writing for TCM is that at the end of the year we get to walk down the memory lane of all the shows and pick the top 5. The bands/shows, that delivered on the anticipation or surprised you beyond wildest expectations. For the most part, it’s a tough task because so many shows are dynamite. So there’s sifting and re-ordering to finalize the list.
Then there are those where you walk out at the end and simply put a check mark beside it. Here’s one I can put on the shelf and it will be waiting come December! The Waterboys last night at The Varsity are my second no brainer on that list. Can’t say it was a surprise. I adore the work of Mike Scott. His band has never failed to deliver. I caught that first 1989 First Avenue appearance and I’ve never missed them since. I guess the positive is that if enough great shows come through town to bump these guys, it will have been an epic run of entertainment.
The seasons are changing. For the first time since spring, there was debate about whether or not to wear the jacket on the walk from the parking garage to the Dinkytown venue. The cool air put a spring in my step as we closed on the sold out Varsity. We were running a few minutes later than usual and there was a long queue working its way through security. No opener tonight. Two full sets. Just the way fans wanted it.
We could hear the opening strains of the raggle-taggle Fisherman’s Blues classics When Ye Go Away and the title track as we shuffled forward. I kept craning my neck and wishing folks would hurry! As we made it through the doors we were greeted by a delightful, Muscle Shoals tinged, cover of The Stones’ Dead Flowers. The Waterboys have never really been shy about rolling out great covers. But in all the times I’d seen the band, this was a departure and it was a dandy.
Fast forward to the song London Mick from the new album Where The Action Is. An ode to Scott’s favorite Clash guitar player, Mick Jones. The band began to open up the throttle. It also became apparent that this particular rendition of The Waterboys, which Scott pointed out has claimed a total of 87 members over the years, was a bit different. It was a five piece combo and heavily influenced by the band’s recent immersion in Nashville and Memphis culture. Waterboys songs often lean toward the ornate and complex. Not tonight. The band was in jam mode. Each player a virtuoso with plenty of room to express and bounce off each other. It just seemed like the music was so accessible.
In the moments it took for Scott to move to the piano, the fully engaged crowd immediately began calling out requests. He shook his head and pointed out that some songs were piano songs, which is where he was parked. So quit suggesting guitar tunes! Scott has always been engaging. But last night he seemed in a particularly good mood and joked about and with his band. Dropping into the the opening phrase from the 1983 debut gem A Girl Called Johnny caused the crowd to erupt.
He talked about his respect for the Twin Cities and how it was steeped in music. Mentioned his admiration for Bob Dylan and that he’d enjoyed the “Muriel” downtown. When someone decided to point out that it was, in fact a mural, not a muriel he rolled his eyes. He just really liked the way muriel sounded. For anybody who knows Mike Scott’s discography, the man is a master of language. Who else quotes and records the sonnets of the great Irish poets? He used that opportunity to dedicate to Dylan and launch into Still A Freak from the 2015 masterpiece Modern Blues. It occurred to me for about the tenth time that this was the song that should be the ringtone on my phone. Just need to find somebody savvy enough to do it for me!
One of the things I’ve always admired about Mike Scott the artist is his mercurial nature. Like Bowie, he’ll challenge you musically with each new release. Rather than refining a style or working within tried and true profitable perimeters, Scott is drawn to new inspirations. And he’s the kind of guy who is all in when he chooses to do something. So new Waterboys albums are a bit like Christmas. There is no way to predict what’s coming. Sometimes, something glances off without penetrating. Sometimes it takes some time to adjust. To hear things the way he hears things. The song Nashville, Tennessee was just such a tune when I heard it on the album. I’d found it witty. A reflection of a time and place but in the grand scheme of things mostly filler. Boy, did I get flipped on my head when the band ripped into a jam version that sprawled over the venue. It morphed into Blue Suede Shoes and then into to a Kiss Army ode with keyboardist Brother Paul ripping off his shirt before circling back. A completely unexpected highlight.
On a rising trajectory, Nashville was replaced by a really hard rocking version of Medicine Bow. Okay, that’s the definition of redundant. A classic early Waterboys’ set list stalwart. I began to notice how well constructed tonight’s set really was. There was going to be a lot of new material and deeper cuts. Songs that seemed more designed for the band to have some fun. To broaden audience exposure. Drop the classic in just often enough to keep the hard cores screaming and happy.
An hour had flown by. This was not The Waterboys I’d seen so many times. Then again, it never is. Rather than trying to compare concerts over the years, I always find it more interesting to simply be moved by the choices and amazed at the passion and range that has always been the band’s hallmark. Talking with my friends, we all agreed this opening set was quite a departure. We expected the second set would be a hurtlin’ fevered train of established hits. Because there weren’t a pile of them in that first set.
Nope. The second set opened with Man, What a Woman from the 2017 release. Again, I was stunned by how powerful the live version was. Steve Wickham’s fiddle solo just flat burned. One of the things that makes this band so unique. That fiddle might be laying down the waltz in the corner pub one minute. Then it’s a searing replacement for a lead guitar in a hard rocker. Nobody sounds like The Waterboys.
I found myself reflecting on Scott’s romantic streak. How does a rocker manage to sing the lines he does about women without coming off as saccharine or completely over the top? The answer is really pretty simple. It’s about real passion. Passion of feeling. Passion of delivery. When Shakespeare, Keats or Milton speak of their true love, we accept it. We revel in the language. We imagine the words but could never say them. Who else in the world of rock and roll can do it as honestly as Mike Scott?
The romantic segment continued, albeit more in the vein of rejected lover. Whereas the object of his affection in Man, What A Woman is unconsummated (she’s married), Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy) is a smoking indictment of a girl who went the wrong direction with her love. Another of those songs that never really exploded for me off the album, but it drove the crowd to delirium, singing back the chorus with all their heart.
True to the formula of getting us to fall in love with the new material and then returning with a monster, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a more searing, amped up version of the 1988 We Will Not Be Lovers. At this point, I figured we would careen toward the end with any number of hard rocking classics. Wrong again. But just like sitting down in a restaurant and simply ordering the special, rather than the tried and true, brings us a different kind of adventure, tonight was about going in a different direction.
If The Answer Is Yeah, from 2017’s Out Of All This Blue was a cool pleasure. A great little hook and a song that wants to sing itself. Although truth be told, its quiet sweetness was jarring coming on the heals of Lovers. But it was an effective segue for the remainder of the set.
Earlier, I called the 2015 release Modern Blues a masterpiece. Anybody who doesn’t want to sing the chorus of Nearest Thing To Hip must be mad as the mist and snow. In it, Scott laments the loss of the unique small shops and stops that made the little villages of his homeland special. For any of us who are sad to see the corner greasy spoon replaced by a Perkins, the tucked away bookstore by a Barnes and Noble or the funky coffee shop by a Starbucks, you know the feeling. The crowd sang back:
“It was the nearest thing to hip
It was the nearest thing to hip
In this shithole.
And now it’s gone!”
November Tale, also from Modern Blues, is a gorgeous tune. Scott stood alone with acoustic 12 string. Brother Paul Stanley added the occasional harmony vocal. For anyone who has been fortunate enough to see him play solo, it’s a joy. Some of his songs are so beautifully constructed lyrically that it would be wrong to let anything get in the way of the simple expression of words. I shook my head about the two Modern Blues selections. Neither were among the first choices I would have ordered walking into the venue. But just like dining on the nightly specials, I was so glad this is what I got.
Morning Came Too Soon, also from Out Of All This Blue was another song that seemed to grow and take on life performed live. I again reflected on Scott’s ability to pen a love song which on paper would seem preposterous. Yet, in his own voice, sublime and heartfelt. I also made a note that this was the third time during the evening that I’d picked up on this wonderful kind of chugging Stones type guitar. A deep South jam kind of sensibility that provided a platform to keep building bigger and hotter. A song I’d overlooked previously. But there it was in all its glory. Reflective of the great Irish Romantics but with a nod to Willie Nelson playing softly on the stereo in the other room. A brilliant movement from past to present.
Like the closing number from their last trip to town (The Long Strange Golden Road), the song took on this mesmerizing groove. Everyone contributed and it went further up. Further on. It wasn’t the song I would have expected as a closer. But then again, why would anybody try to top it?
Well, maybe because they’re The Waterboys. Mike Scott is as much playwright and actor as he his rock and roll front man. Not in any kind of contrived or ego led manner. He has this anti-rock star accessibility. It’s just that he understands theatricality and drama more than nearly anybody in the business. In My Time On Earth from the new album Where The Action Is speaks of telling the truth. Without becoming political, it talks about speaking truth to power as our greatest responsibility while taking up our little space on this earth. It is like the ultimate soliloquy. Ask any actor, it’s that moment in the spotlight. It shone brightly on Mike Scott.
The encore was Whole Of The Moon. The band got away with not playing many of the stalwarts. I suspect they’d have had a riot on their hands if they hadn’t given the crowd that one. It was a love fest. And then they walked to the front to say goodnight. It really was the planned end to the evening. But the audience showered the band with adoration. A soccer chant of Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole! filled The Varsity. Scott looked to the side of the stage and called for a guitar, said a quiet word to his band mates and they strapped in for a bonus.
We walked in to Dead Flowers. Twice more I heard echoes of a Stones tail dragging guitar lick. He introduced a song that every garage band worth its salt cut its teeth on. Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Ripped that joint.
There are bands that have climbed higher. That can live off their hits. There are seasoned bands that remain hungry with greater things in their future. There are bands that are restless and continue to move in new directions that always challenge you. The Waterboys occupy that sweet spot. Nobody does it better than they do. In a word: Brilliant. I’m counting the days to the next swing through town.