Once upon a long ago, I travelled from Swansea to Birmingham to see a much talked-about, but as yet not-really-broken-through band by the name of U2. (Before I go on, I feel I must metaphorically snap my fingers and get you back in the room, because I’m sure you may be are stuck on several things in that opening sentence. None are relevant. Stop it. Stopped? Good. Can I continue?)
Over time and many gigs, I’ve learned to pay attention to the support act, ever since I saw an unknown Squeeze play bottom of the bill behind Radio Stars and Eddie and the Hot Rods back in ’77. This particular night was another when the magic was spun again, the unknown hopefuls this time an outfit called The Waterboys, and they utterly owned the stage. They were big, soulful, mellifluous, shouty and captivating. In fairness, U2, who had yet to invent the Blues and for whom Bono was yet to declare himself, if only tacitly, as bigger than Jesus, were actually hugely entertaining. But it was the raggedly ragamuffin bunch of openers that left me restless and wanting more. Shortly thereafter, they found themselves elevated, or demoted depending on how you view these things, to being mentioned in the same breath as U2, as well as Big Country and Simple Minds. It was the era of the 80s’ ‘Big Music’, a label which itself came from an album track (and single release) from The Waterboys’ 1984 album A Pagan Place.
The Waterboys were/are, in essence, Mike Scott and whichever musicians he has around him at any given time. However, while he is naturally the greatest influence on the band’s sound and direction, he has never been fool enough to ignore the strengths of those he chooses to have as companions. The majestic keyboard sound of Karl Wallinger (who was to write and record She’s The One with his band World Party, later a hit for Robbie Williams) and the subtler saxophone of Anthony Thistlethwaite (long since a journeyman with The Saw Doctors) created a far more interesting framework for Scott’s literary and Celtic songwriting than was evident in the other ‘Big Music’ groups. And perhaps the greatest influence was the addition of Steve Wickham in 1985: a folk-orientated fiddle player, his contribution led to the ‘second era’ of The Waterboys sound, bringing a sweeping folk feel to the rock’n’roll that lasted for several years.
A brief return to a more rock-driven sound was followed by the dissolution of the band and a solo career from Scott. Rekindling the Waterboys’ brand, and with Wickham rejoining, a more experimental sound – more informed by ‘alternative music’ – laid the foundation for the most recent incarnation of the band, as heard on the 2015 album ‘Modern Blues’ and now on this, the magnum opus of ‘Out of All This Blue’.
The DNA here is recognisable, but evolution has helped build a fitter, stronger animal altogether. This work doesn’t ever sit neatly in a category, it’s not ‘Big Music’, it’s not ‘Celtic-folk’ and it’s not ‘alternative music’. Nor is it all of these somehow melded together: it’s something quite different, something that could come only from the building blocks of the past. There is the same literary lyricism, the same heart-baring soulful words from Scott, that as usual reward close listening, but they are wrapped in an eclectic, fuzzy, hip-hop (yes, hip-hop), funky blanket that will have you hypnotised, melting into it’s warm loveliness, and before you know it, wanting to get up and snake and sway your hips. (Dancing? To a Waterboys album? Whatever next?)
Out Of All This Blue is an album that works as a whole, as a throbbing, bopping, hopeful, exposing piece of art that embraces and provokes. I have my favourite tracks: you’ll have yours. Give it a try, maybe sinking first into If The Answer Is Yeah. But if that doesn’t warm you, just immerse yourself in New York I Love You, or Girl In A Kayak: and then float away…