After keeping the Waterboys on ice for the better part of a decade, Mike Scott has decided that he once again wants to hear what he once dubbed “the big music,” a stadium-scaled melange of grand gestures and alterna-Celtic melodies.
The eagerness with which the crowd at the band’s second North American date embraced its return, however, had less to do with that sound than with the cult surrounding the singer himself. The collective opinion was captured by a woman standing atop a riser in the wings: “Not only is he a poet,” she raved to no one in particular, “but he’s as skinny as hell!”
That yin-yang co-existence was evident from the get-go of the quintet’s uneven-but-intriguing set. Scott, heavy-lidded and shaman-like, slithered through the gradually cresting “Let It Happen,” infusing the song with a compelling mix of existential angst and pure libido. Similarly, the band pulled out all the arena-rock stops on a swaying, sing-along version of “Fisherman’s Blues.”
While fiddle and organ –handled, respectively, by Steve Wickham and Richard Naiff — are essential to the Waterboys’ sound in the studio, the instruments can create overbearing shrillness live, as was the case for much of this set. The onslaught deadened all subtlety in songs such as “We Will Not Be Lovers” and “All the Things She Gave Me.”
The more overweening material — particularly the handful of songs from the current European release “A Rock in the Weary Land” — also let Scott indulge his worst tendencies, chief among them his need to show off his Jim Morrison impression (or, more accurately, his impression of Patti Smith doing her Lizard King impression).
Scott is at his best when his head is most ensconced in the clouds. When breathing that heady air, he’s capable of charting cosmic quests that rival those of fellow traveler Van Morrison — as evidenced by a stunning, extended rendition of “Pan Within,” which delivered on its promise to lead listeners on “a journey under the skin.”
That journey played out quite beautifully in the dramatic closer “Savage Earth Heart” as well as a luminescent encore rendition of “Don’t Bang the Drum” that quietly underscored the song’s message of spiritual awe. The genuine passion in Scott’s plea that the listener listen for cues and not “bang the drum like monkeys do” was undeniably moving — but it’s worth noting that he could stand to follow that advice himself.
The Waterboys play the House of Blues in Los Angeles on April 4 and 5.