Review: The Waterboys – Ulster Hall, Belfast
With a new album (Where The Action is) set for release in a matter of days, it’s an pretty opportune time to catch The Waterboys live. They played the Ulster Hall back in 1986 when the band were starting to make a name for themselves, a full two years before the massive breakthrough that was the Fisherman’s Blues album and have played there many times since. In a recent interview for The Irish News Mike Scott waxed lyrical about the venue, placing up there with the likes of Glasgow’s Barrowland, The Filmore in San Fransisco and The Roundhouse in London. As Scott pointed out, it is the connection between band and audience that really matters helpfully noting that any band that complained about the sound in the Ulster Hall didn’t “know their arse from their elbow” while stating “all the gigs that have been there, their ghosts linger on and fuel the present.” The man has, quite simply, impeccable taste in venues.
Maybe this is how gigs would be run in a utopian society; no support, a couple of hour-long sets, an interval and a curfew at eleven pm. In that kind of society I’d also consider banning people who buy tickets for a gig on the basis of one big hit song (in this case “Whole of the Moon”) and then either talk through everything else or spend all night shouting for that one big hit – more on that particular gripe later.
At eight pm on the button, the PA system bursts into life with something both operatic and cinematic and The Waterboys take the stage. Without warning, Scott lashes into the opening guitar chords to “Where The Action Is”, doing a very passable impression of Pete Townshend’s windmilling right arm. The Ulster Hall was half full when he started but it was rammed by the time this opening track ended. I suspected that the band had just taken the evening by the scruff of the neck and given it a good old shake.
The personnel are the same as for the last couple of tours with the indomitable Steve Wickham on fiddle, the flamboyant and manic Brother Paul on keys and the rock steady rhythm section of Aongus Ralston (bass) and Ralph Salmins (drums). Scott switches between 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars as well as electric guitar and piano with backing vocals provided by the wonderful Jess Kavanagh and Zeenie Summers.
The first set of the evening is a high tempo affair with some new tracks off the upcoming album interspersed with older material. Given the depth and quality of the band’s back catalogue, that’s not in any way a criticism. As always, Scott blasts out the rhythm, backed by Ralston and Salmin while Wickham and Brother Paul provide the lead breaks and riffs. “All The Things She Gave Me” and “If The Answer Is Yeah” flash by in a blur before Scott takes a brief break to play keyboards on “Old England.” Wickham takes on guitar duties for “Right Side of Heartbreak,” giving Scott the chance to strut a little.
Brother Paul gets his turn in the spotlight for “Nashville, Tennessee” named after what Scott describes as a “poignant and pathetic” phrase coined by the keyboard player, who even gets to take a massive, front-of-stage bow after a typical all-arms-and-hair keyboard solo. “Still A Freak” gives Jess Kavanagh a chance to take on lead vocals and a breakneck and frantic version of “Medicine Bow” leads us into the interval breathless and perhaps a little bit shell-shocked.
The second half of the show is a different beast, opening with the new slower, soulful gospel-flavoured “Out Of All This Blue;” the sound seems to have been tweaked during the break; less harsh and tinny and more solid and rounded. There are some big fiddle breaks from Wickham, even going so far as to wrap a song up with a full-on jig. “The Closest Thing To Hip” is in there, Scott’s nostalgic nod to the long-departed cafes (especially the intriguingly named Beautiful Mistake), record and clothes shops of his teenage years. “Too Close To Heaven” is a slow and more intricate number, sadly spoiled by too much audience noise, although the band up the volume on this towards the end, drowning out the background hubbub in a huge, ecstatic chorus.
Scott and Wickham give the band a break to perform a tongue-in-cheek duet of “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy” before the band wrap up with a new track, “In My Time on Earth;” this is aspirational in tone with Salmin’s drums knocking it out of the park while the Hammond organ and backing vocals draw out the tune and the lyrics and let it build to the finale. I’ve seen the Waterboys in concert four times and I’ve never seen the end of their set coming – it always manages to take me by surprise.
It’s encore time, and if you’ve read this closely enough you may have noticed that a couple of big tracks were missing; we get “Whole Of The Moon” and “Fisherman’s Blues” for the encore – did anyone really expect anything else? Happily, the punters who were talking through everything else are now singing, clapping and waving their iPhones in the air so I guess that they are going home happy. Mind you, these are two great pop songs performed in a slightly exaggerated, good-natured way and with the sense of a band that can see that the finish line is in sight and are pulling out that extra gear.
Playing live, The Waterboys never disappoint; every show is something new. There is always new material on show and older songs get reworked and re-imagined. They manage to be both consummate musicians and crowd-pleasing performers and always bring an energy and urgency to their shows. And yes, anyone who slags off the grand old dame of Belfast’s Bedford Street really doesn’t know their arse from their elbow.