An Appointment With The Waterboys
20th May 2012
Mike Scott – lead vocal, electric guitar, electric piano, 12 string guitar
James Hallawell- keyboards
Ralph Salmins – drums
Steve Wickham – violin
Marc Arciero- bass guitar
(???) – electric guitar, pedal steel guitar
This is a very mixed reaction. “An Appointment With Mr Yeats” was one of my most-played albums of the last six months, and one of my favourite releases of last year. I know it backwards, forewards and sideways. I love it. But even when it was released, in the first flush of ownership, I was critical of two things: the drum sound was often much too late eighties for my taste and didn’t fit the music, and there wasn’t nearly enough of female vocalist Katie Kim, whose vocals sparkled every time she appeared. Keep those two points in mind.
The fifteen minutes before the concert had a specially made medley instrumental soundtrack, delving into all sorts of things from heavy guitar to bits of Benefit of Mr Kite, and classical and Gimme Shelter. Phew, if they’ve gone to that much trouble … and it was played at a good volume so you could hear it properly but still talk. Expectations were high.
It was a dynamic entry and start, and on time. So far excellent … but … the six piece band had no Katie Kim, and no horn/ woodwind player. They launched in. We were in the front row. The mix was abysmal. The first hour was largely like listening to a sixty minute drum solo. The drums were ludicrously over-amplified and had that hackneyed late eighties sound. I always listen for bass guitar from habit of years and I couldn’t distinguish it. The keyboards were lost in the mess, as was the violin apart from sudden screeches. It was ear-bleedingly loud at the front. I wouldn’t go to see Ray Davies again because he plays ridiculously loud. This was much the same. It’s the old problem of musicians and sound crew who have near deafened themselves over the years and equate sheer volume with excitement. I could barely distinguish the first three songs, as Mike Scott’s vocal was steamrollered by drums and drowned. Mike Scott is a hugely charismatic performer, and there were flashes of sheer brilliance amid the murk… The Thrill is Gone, Lonesome Old Wind, The Girl In The Swing. The best bit was the one number where the drummer deserted the stage. Scott sounded wonderful. I was also beginning to notice that they sounded best when Scott was singing without playing, or was playing 12-string. His electric guitar was also too loud and thrashy, and when he moved to electric piano it was too jangly. So at the interval, this show was perhaps two stars out of five. Horrible sound. Brilliant singer when you could hear him. Basically this is a 1200 seater traditional theatre (and the balcony was empty). The acoustic isn’t fantastic, but Van Morrison always sounds superb in this hall (which he always chooses of the three local possibles), as did Eliza Carthy, Rodger Hodgson, Art Garfunkel, and at the louder end, Asia. Asia were loud, but clear and every instrument distinctive. At the front for The Waterboys, the instruments weren’t distinctive. The sound guys had used the volume for a 3000 or 5000 seater. The over-balance on drums was appalling. I hate that huge echo on bass drum too. Van Morrison uses the natural drum level, and works around it. The drum mic-ing is minimal, and doesn’t change the balance between one drum and another. Eliza Carthy used a drum ‘cage’ which stopped the drums leaking onto the other mics. Both had a way better sound as a result. It wasn’t just the position I was sitting in either … I’ve been in the front row twice for Van Morrison, as I was for Eliza Carthy and Art Garfunkel.
At the interval, Karen moved to the back row. She was in severe pain from her eardums. I was in pain too. An hour later my right ear is buzzing and popping.
The second half was the stuff we’d come to see … An Appointment With Mr Yeats. The sound was totally different. The drummer played quieter, and at last Mike Scott was applying light and shade rather than having all the band blasting out full on all the time. The material is intrinsically better too. The second half was brilliant. Five stars out of five. What a contrast.
There was a lot of theatricality, I loved the masks and the Slouching To Bethlehem reading. We only got half the album … The Hosting of The Shee, The Song of Wandering Aengus, News For the Delphic Oracle, White Birds, Mad As The Mist and Snow, September 1913 (the volume cranked up of course, but to “loud” rather than “too loud to distinguish instruments”), then an incredible version of An Irish Airman Foresees His Death and a loud, but again not “too loud” Politics. What amazed me is that he didn’t do Sweet Dancer, my most played song according to iTunes of the last three months. Obviously Before The World Was Made wasn’t possible without female vocal too. It’s hard for me to believe he could leave Sweet Dancer out. And Let The Earth Bear Witness, and A Full Moon in March and The Faery’s Last Song.
There were two sets of encores. The first, Don’t Bang The Drum was straight back to ear-splitting, as was The Whole of The Moon. I love The Whole of The Moon. But not in this noisy, messy version. I thought they crapped pretty comprehensively on their greatest hit. Everyone else was going mad with joy around me though. Karen told me that the volume was fine at the back (where of course the mixing board was) in these two numbers. It wasn’t at the front. The second encore was A Man Is In Love, just 12 string and Steve Wickham on violin and back to sublime again. Then we got a loud Fisherman’s Blues, but somehow it worked much better than The Whole Of The Moon.
I thought the show would be greatly improved by cutting the past hits to a handful, dropping all the thrashy stuff, playing The Whole of The Appointment With Mr Yeats, doing The Whole of The Moon in the same style, and bringing back a female vocalist and some pipes and horns. More Irish mist, please. In the band call, Mike Scott praised the drums as their powerhouse. The drum sound has to be Mike Scott’s choice. As Robbie Robertson once said, “Creedence is just John Fogerty and some guys.” The same has been said of Ray Davies and The Kinks, less fairly, I think. The Waterboys has always been “Mike Scott and some guys.” Though Steve Wickham is the longest serving and most important collaborator. The music needs more subtlety … which the drummer was perfectly able to deliver when required in the second half, so it wasn’t lack of ability or taste, well, maybe lack of taste. I think it would benefit from a bit of Irish percussion too. The bass player joined in on vocals for The Whole of The Moon, and the keyboard player added a few vocals too. But it would be much better with more backing vocal. I guess I just don’t like most of the early stuff … well, I like the melodic stuff. I want to hear his voice. He has great stage theatrics too.