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Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #8 The Waterboys – Friday, July 12th, 2013

(This year’s edition of Ottawa Bluesfest has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. In previous years, especially on my old blog, I would share photos and thoughts on some of the live music I was enjoying at the festival throughout the duration. So for the next week and a half, I thought I’d share ten great sets, out of the many I’ve witnessed over the years, one for each day on which music would have be performed. Enjoy.)

The Waterboys live at Bluesfest 2013

Artist: The Waterboys
When: Friday, July 12th, 2013
Where: Claridge Homes stage at 8:00pm
Context: This Waterboys set on a Friday night seven years ago allowed me to cross a band off my list of bands that I needed to see, of which I never thought I would see, and they did not disappoint. Mike Scott came out on stage in a town in which he had never before performed, took off his sunglasses, and said, “Okay, Ottawa, let’s take a look at you.” Then, he led his band right into “Strange boat” from the classic album, “Fisherman’s blues”.

Indeed, having been at this for a long time, Mike Scott had a lot of material to pull from and played a set of tunes from all different parts of his career under The Waterboys moniker. Their sound has changed quite a bit over the years but what has never changed is Scott’s incredible talent for lyrics and storytelling. The band membership also has been quite fluid over the years. The band touring North America with Scott that year was one that he had put together himself just for this purpose and considering that most of the material was likely new to them, played it like it was second nature. The standout member, of course, was fiddler Steve Wickham, who was an honest-to-goodness member of the band in the late 80s, when “Fisherman’s blues” was written and recorded. You can just feel the chemistry and history between Wickham and Scott as you watch them perform together. Yes, Wickham is just as much the performer as Scott himself.

The Waterboys played for just over an hour, squeezing in most of their more popular tracks, certainly all of my favourites, save one (“Glastonbury song” from 1993’s “Dream harder”), but I was only half expecting that one. They even played a couple of new tracks, both of which had a bit of blues rock feel, and as Scott said, “It is a blues festival, right?”

My wife Victoria at one point turned to me and said, “They’ve waited too long to come to Ottawa.” And I’m pretty sure the crowd, which was for the most part of the older persuasion, would have agreed and most seemed pleased with the set. When it ended, one would almost say abruptly, the crowd managed to drag the band out for an encore, for which Scott and company covered an old traditional gospel tune, “Will the circle be unbroken”. And this was a perfect ending for me.

Mike Scott and Malcolm Gold
Steve WIckham of The Waterboys
Mike Scott
Malcolm Gold and Jay Barclay of The Waterboys
Steve Wickham duelling with Jay Barclay and Malcolm Gold
Steve Wickham duelling with Mike Scott
Mike Scott getting theatrical in a two-faced mask

Strange boat
Fisherman’s blues
A girl called Johnny
I’m still a freak
The girl in the swing
We will not be lovers
Raggle taggle gypsy
Mad as the mist and snow
The whole of the moon
I can see Elvis
Medicine bow
Don’t bang the drum
Will the circle be unbroken


Best albums of 1988: #3 The Waterboys “Fisherman’s blues”

In a previous post on these pages, I told the story of how I worked in the tool rental industry in the years immediately following graduation and during this time, met a guy named Chris, whose last name may now forever escape me, and with whom I shared musical tastes. Often while working together, we would talk music and share concert stories and recommendations and often with him, The Waterboys would be mentioned. I think the first time the name came up was after I told him about how much of a Wonder Stuff fan I was. After that, he would ask me, “Did you listen to them yet?” (‘them’ being The Waterboys), to which I would ashamedly shake my head in the negative. After a few weeks of this, I finally gave a listen to the title track off “Fisherman’s blues”, one of three albums he listed as recommended (“you’ll love any one of them”). I did enjoy the song but then, later the same evening, I heard it again during the opening credits of “Waking Ned Devine”, a film I had randomly picked to go see at my local rep theatre. It then seemed to me fated that I should fall in love with the song. I went out to buy the album shortly afterwards on CD and fell in love with the whole darned thing too.

The Waterboys are mainly the musical vehicle for creative force and frontman Mike Scott. He formed the group in 1983 and, save for a few years where he released work under his own name, the band has been a going concern with a rotating cast of characters. The only other long standing member that is with the group to this day is Irish fiddler Steve Wickham, who helped along the first change in sound after joining the force in 1985. Prior to the fourth album, which is the album of our discussion today, The Waterboys’ music was post-punk based with only hints of folk. “Fisherman’s blues” came out of lengthy recording sessions in Ireland and was heavily influenced by the traditional folk music of that country. It divided listeners at the time between those fans that wanted more of the ‘big music’ and those that loved the new sound. Nowadays, though, it is widely considered the band’s masterpiece.

The mass amounts of recordings that resulted from the year long sessions were such that, more than a decade later, Scott was able to put out a whole other excellent album, a sequel of sorts, from the pieces that didn’t make the original cut. That also means to me that “Fisherman’s blues” is a complete album, devoid of filler, and almost impossible to distill down to three picks for you. Still, I have managed a close approximation. Have a listen.

”Strange boat”: Track number three is a mellow number on the album. Acoustic strum, lazy beat and bass just plod along as a Mike Scott throws out a number of metaphors for this bizarre journey we call life. “We’re living in a strange time, working for a strange goal. We’re turning flesh and body into soul.” But if that sentiment’s not beautiful enough for you, Steve Wickham takes the song out of pedestrian territory with his heaven-meandering fiddles.

”And a band on the ear”: Track seven is nine minutes on the album and was released as the second single in a six and half minute version. It’s a lively, boppy jam that gives guest musician, Máirtín O’Connor, lots of room to prowl with his accordion and of course, Wickham to flail us again with his fiddles. It just begs for you to get up and dance. Meanwhile, Mike Scott regales us in each verse of tales of past loves, saving the best (and current) one for last. “So my woman of the hearthfire, harbour of my soul. I watch you lightly sleeping and sense the dream that does unfold (like gold). You to me are treasure, you to me are dear so I’ll give you my love with a bang on the ear.” And if you’re wondering, “bang on the ear” is not threatening violence but an expression of Celtic origin that refers to an affectionate kiss.

”Fisherman’s blues”: Though as mentioned above, the title track and first single off “Fisherman’s blues” was my introduction to the band, this is not the only reason it’s still my all time favourite Waterboys track. The other reason is more obvious than that, it’s just pure awesome. Here, Wickham’s fiddles are paired with Anthony Thistlethwaite’s mandolin. The two together create a raucous kitchen party all by themselves and the bass and drums can’t help but follow their jaunty lead and Scott yelps enthusiastic “Woo!”s in spite of himself. The lyrics describe Scott’s yearning for a simpler and freer life, like that of a fisherman or train engine driver, at the same time knowing that such a life is not without pitfalls. However… “Well I know I will be loosened from bonds that hold me fast, that the chains all hung around me, will fall away at last. And on that fine and fateful day, I will take me in my hands. I will ride on the train. I will be the fisherman.” It does sound very romantic in his words and music, doesn’t it? Woooo!!!

Check back next Thursday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”
9. Erasure “The innocents”
8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”
6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”
5. R.E.M. “Green”
4. Pixies “Surfer rosa”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.