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Concert Review by Nick Morgan




The Waterboys; An Appointment with Mr Yeats
Barbican, London
, February 3rd 2011

Punctuality isn’t my strongest point and I was somewhat embarrassed to be late for this appointment with Mr W B Yeats, but my mercy dash from Speyside to London’s Barbican theatre (sans dinner I may add), was always going to be tight.  Yeats, as I’m sure you know, was the Nobel prize-winning Irish poet, Senator of the Irish Free State created in 1922, passionate supporter of Irish independence, sometime mystic, steeped in the Celtic mythology of his homeland, and a staunch advocate of the theatrical arts. And although he is closely associated with Dublin in many people’s minds (where amongst other things he was responsible for the creation of the Abbey Theatre, now the National Theatre of Ireland), he actually spent his early years in a house just round the corner from where I’m writing this.  Mike Scott was born in Edinburgh, studied English Literature at Edinburgh University, and as far as I can tell didn’t live in Chiswick.  He is however, Mr W B Yeats’ Number One Fan, and has been for many years (as you will know if you’ve read previous reviews of his work on Whiskyfun).  Now there’s a famous quote about Scott: "madman or genius, depending on your point of view", which is very pertinent to this show, for only a madman, or a genius, would risk putting on a two-hour set of unrecorded songs, based on the writing of a fairly unfashionable poet, in one of London’s most prestigious venues.  But even though I missed the first thirty minutes or so, the conclusion would have to be ‘genius’.

It is a Waterboys gig, that ever-changing collection of musical wanders, featuring the familiar Steve Wickham on violin, some less familiar Dublin faces (including singer Katie Kim) and on oboe, sax and cor anglais Kate St John.  Scott’s wearing what my old Mum would call ‘fancy pants’, satin and velvet stripes, a dandyish mandarin-style velvet jacket, striped shirt, and his trademark winkle-pickers. His greying mane of hair hides a well worn face, but there is an intensity in his expression and piercing eyes that runs though the whole evening.  These shows were premiered in Dublin last year; this is their first outing in the UK.  The place is full of Waterboys fans no doubt expecting a good smattering of Waterboys songs.  But that’s not Scott’s style.  So whilst some of the arrangements are given the full-on Waterboys treatment, with more climaxes than you’d get at a Berlusconi ‘bunga bunga’ party, (‘The mountain tomb’) others are delightfully spare, and beautifully staged. 

Mike Scott
Mike Scott, Waterboys

‘The four ages of man’, with a huge clock ticking towards midnight, and ‘An Irish airman foresees his death’, with Scott marching from one side of the stage to the other, are spine-chillingly perfect.  Not all the songs feature Yeats word for word, “I’m pretty ruthless with my lyrics”, says Scott, “and I may have taken liberties with some of Yeats’”.  So in the very powerful ‘Let the earth bear witness’ Scott combines words from two plays to forge a song he dedicated to the Iranian protesters who took to the streets in 2009; sad to say sung here almost the same day as protester Zahra Bahrami was executed by the Iranian regime.  Powerful stuff indeed, aided of course by great musicianship.  I’ll just call out Wickham’s violin on ‘The White birds’, which gave me what I described in my notebook as ‘a St Kilda moment’.  Go to St Kilda and you’ll see what I mean.


And I was very surprised that at the end of the show Scott pulled two Waterboys classics out of the bag, which had the predictable effect of bringing the bum-waggling and arm-twirling so-called dancers to their feet.  But no-one is really going to object to stirring renditions of ‘Bang the drum’, or ‘Whole of the moon’, not even Mr Yeats, whose moving image was projected above us, looking down with a genial, if not slightly mystified smile.  I was so taken with the whole thing that I’ve now got a copy of Yeats’ collected works by my bedside, and damn me, whenever I pick it up I hear Mike Scott’s voice in my head as I read each poem.  That tells me that this is one gig which will stay with me for a very long time.  Genius. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate and Nick)

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