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.

Live music galleries: Ottawa Bluesfest 2019, day one – Marie-clo, Abigail Lapell, Chvrches, U.S. girls, Alt-J

(Since I’ll be too busy attending Ottawa Bluesfest over the next week or so to continue with this blog’s regularly scheduled programming, I thought I would do a special ‘live galleries’ series this week to share some pics from some of the sets I am enjoying.)

May of Bluesfest 2019 grounds

Artists: Marie-clo, Abigail Lapell, Chvrches, U.S. girls, Alt-J
When: July 4th, 2019
Where: Lebreton Flats Park, Ottawa
Some words: By my count, it’s been four years since I last bought a full festival pass to Ottawa’s Bluesfest, mostly due to increasing difficulties in finding enough in the lineup to be excited about. This year, there were two (perhaps three) bands that I was really, really jived for (and multiple others that generated a good enough amount of interest) and one of them was scheduled to play last night. Unfortunately for me (and likely many others), they were forced to cancel all of their summer shows. This removed a horrible time slot conflict with the main stage headliners for a lot of people. But for me, I would have rather seen First Aid Kit and crossed them off the bucket list. Next time, I guess.

I stopped off for dinner and a couple beers at a local brewery before heading down to the festival, factoring in plenty of time to navigate the long lines that are usual on opening night as organizers figure out their processes. Imagine my surprise to find nary a line, which made walking the labyrinth of temporary barriers superfluous. Once past the gates, I refilled my water bottle and headed in to the museum where the festival always has an intimate stage set up inside the Barney Danson theatre. Yeah, I’m very thankful that with last night’s heat, my first two shows were scheduled inside. Sweet air conditioning.

Right at 6 o’oclock was a local-ish, indie pop bilingual vocalist that went by the stage name of Marie-clo and was backed by another local band, Mal/aimé. After that, things got a bit dicey with conflicts and time slot overlaps. I caught the first half of Toronto singer/songwriter Abigail Lapell’s excellent and intimate folkie set. Then, I slipped into the middle of Scottish indie dance pop trio, Chvrches’ well-attended and high energy set on the main stage. At some point around 8pm, I hightailed it to the Videotron stage to catch the end of my happiest surprises of the night: the insanity of Meghan Remy’s art pop laboratory, U.S. Girls. I finished the night back at the City stage where the crowds had amassed even more for Alt-J. And it was brilliant.

Marie-clo and Mal:aimé
Abigail Lapell
Lauren Mayberry and Jonny Scott of Chvrches
Martin Doherty of Chvrches
Iain Cook of Chvrches
Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches
U.S. Girls
Meghan Remy aka U.S. girls
Thom Sonny Green of Alt-J
Gus Unger-Hamilton of Alt-J
Joe Newman of Alt-J

Best albums of 1998: #2 Billy Bragg and Wilco “Mermaid avenue”

After seeing him perform at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in New York City, Guthrie’s daughter Nora contacted Billy Bragg in 1992 about a project. It seemed Woody Guthrie had left the lyrics for thousands of songs he had written but not recorded and for which, no music had been notated. Nora wanted to bring these songs to life for a new generation. Bragg agreed but not before enlisting the help of American alternative rock band, Wilco. The results were better than anyone could have expected, garnering critical acclaim, record sales, and a Grammy for everyone’s troubles.

I picked up on this album a few years after its release and mostly because I’d been a fan of Billy Bragg for a number of years. I’d heard a few of its songs beforehand but didn’t know then that they were re-creations of those written by Guthrie. Of course, when I first listened to it, I preferred the songs sung by Bragg to the others sung by Jeff Tweedy because I only knew Wilco by name, not their music. However, I have since grown to love all of the songs and appreciate the difference Tweedy’s voice lends to those others.

The sound and instrumentation of “Mermaid avenue” was definitely different from what I was used to with Bragg, which is likely why he wanted Wilco to help: to signal to all that this was not about him. It is old school Americana but with a modern edge, like actors dressing up in old costumes but speaking in modern colloquial. I’m not all that familiar with Woody Guthrie’s music, save for the iconic “This land is your land”, of course, but I have to imagine he would’ve been happy with the results. His daughter definitely was because the success of this album spawned two later volumes, as well as a box set collecting all of the compilations in one set.

It is typically difficult to narrow down my picks for you to three but this one was near impossible so I just took the first three in running order. Enjoy.

“Walt Whitman’s niece”: My first pick here is a song that sounds like a tall tale that might be spun in any bar in the world. “Last night or the night before that, I won’t say which night, a seaman friend of mine, I’ll not say which seaman…” It is a literary conquest sung (and told) by Bragg with the band members of Wilco as house band. You can almost picture Bragg sitting precariously on a stool having at it on his guitar after one too many and the band stomping along with him at the piano and harmonica, shouting along with him at the appropriate parts. It’s unseemly and full of innuendo and lots of good fun. Whitman would’ve been proud.

“California stars”: Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) sings this next one around the campfire after a hard day’s work in the fields with fellow workers. “I’d like to rest my heavy head tonight on a bed of California stars. I’d like to lay my weary bones tonight on a bed of California stars.” It is a clear but lonely night. The sky is big and full of stars but not the same ones that watch over California, where his beloved lays sleeping and waiting for him. You can feel this longing and dreaming in every strum on the guitar, whine of the pedal steel and peal of fiddle. Tweedy’s voice is perfect here, giving it a completely different than it would’ve had if sung by Bragg. It’ll charm you for sure.

“Way over yonder in the minor key”: This one’s got a feel that reminds me of Huck Finn or The Little Rascals. “Her mama cut a switch from a cherry tree and laid it on the she and me. It stung lots worse than a hive of bees but there ain’t nobody that can sing like me.” Its language is childish, like a skipping game or patty cakes, and suggests a young first love. Billy Bragg leads the tale with Natalie Merchant adding her lovely vocals at the chorus. It’s gentle and melancholic, perhaps a remembering of a time long gone. It’s so beautiful, you’ll want to listen to it over and over again.

Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”
4. Pulp “This is hardcore”
3. Neutral Milk Hotel “In the aeroplane over the sea”

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