MIKE Scott has found a new groove.
With the release of the album Modern Blues, Scott’s ever-evolving musical entourage, The Waterboys, have returned to the driving, crunching rock — and instrumental finesse — that defined the band when they flitted around ‘the big-time’ 30 years ago.
With bassist David Hood, and Paul Brown on keys, Scott has also captured the classic soul sound of the hits those session stalwarts have played on over the years.
At the Fame and Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama, Hood has backed the likes of Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Paul Simon and James Brown. Brown has been plying his trade with Anne Peebles (‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’) for the bones of two decades, and the Tennessee native’s hammond organ, and other keyboards, are everywhere on Modern Blues.
Following the well-received marriage of William Butler Yeats’s poetry and Scott’s music that was 2011’s An Appointment with Mr Yeats, it’s another change in style for The Waterboys. This is reminiscent of their change between 1985’s This is the Sea and Fisherman’s Blues three years later, a switch to folk-rock that mystified fans of ‘the big music’ personified by the band.
Now, Scott has returned again to something like the rock sound of 1993’s Dream Harder and, seven years later, A Rock in the Weary Land.
STILL FLYING THE FLAG
Modern Blues is bookended by two rousing stand-out tracks, the first being the opener, ‘Destinies Entwined’, which features a ‘fuzz-fiddle’ solo (it could be mistaken for lead guitar) by Scott’s longest-serving fellow Waterboy, Dubliner Steve Wickham.
He appears on one other track, the 12-bar-blues ‘Still A Freak’, perhaps a declaration that Scott is in the business for the long haul: ‘I’m still a freak, I ain’t been gagged/I’m still flying the flag.’
The 10-minute finale is ‘Long Strange Golden Road’, which he says is not a reflection on his own meandering musical journey of three decades.
But the lyrics are suggestive in places of Scott’s mid-’80s introduction to Irish folk and traditional music. ‘In the drizzling Irish rain/as a tender dawn was breaking/in a doorway I stood spellbound/by the ancient music they were making.’
The next line calls to mind how that magic came unstuck, as the band disintegrated around him, just as touring had begun for the 1990 Room to Roam album — including a painful temporary departure by Wickham.
Scott sings against a sonic backdrop that should rattle some rafters on tour; it wouldn’t feel misplaced alongside tracks from the Muscle Shoals studios’ later southern rock sound.
Scott says the dominant rhythm-guitar riff on ‘Beautiful Now’, which I have hesitantly likened to American, 1980s MTV pop-rock, is closer to something like Velvet Underground’s ‘Sweet Jane’.
“Because that’s the music I grew up listening to,” explains the singer who has lived in Dublin since 2008, as he did up to 1991.
For Scott’s 10th birthday in Edinburgh, he got his first guitar, a present from his dad, Allan.
This was one of the last occasions they met, after Allan had split from Scott’s mum, Anne. Scott’s 2012 memoir, Adventures of a Waterboy, describes how, with the help of his wife, Janette, he tracked Allan down in Birmingham.
A week before Scott’s 40th birthday, at the end of 1998, he knocked on Allan’s door.
Scott’s dad had never heard of The Waterboys, but he has now seen several of the band’s shows.
Although Scott had never obsessed about his father’s absence, their meeting has changed his life.
“A subtle change, a deep, subtle change that is hard to describe. And I’m glad to say that me and my dad are great pals. I saw him several times in the last few months,” he says.
Scott has become a father himself in the past two years, but any sense of renewal or of a new beginning in the lyrics is unrelated. It’s just a collection of songs with no theme, he says, written in two periods: half in 2008 and half in 2012 and 2013.
Modern Blues features five co-written songs, with Scott collaborating with James Maddock on melodies for three. Maddock is a songwriter friend from Leicester, who lives in New York.
Scott went to Nashville to find musicians who would capture the soul-music sound he loves to hear on old vinyl records, allowing the players come up with their own ideas in studio.
He says he was chuffed when Ellie Goulding’s version ‘How Long Will I Love You’ made him a top-three songwriter again in 2013.
And there is no shortage of songs of love on Modern Blues, if the laidback funk dirge of ‘The Girl Who Slept For Scotland’ and the heavier and more upbeat — sonically, at least — ‘Rosalind (You Married the Wrong Guy)’ may be classified as such.
On ‘I Can See Elvis’, he lists performers like Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Keith Moon, Charlie Parker, and ‘John Lennon doing handstands’.
This, he says, is an exploration of what The King might be up to in the afterlife, rather than his dream Waterboys’ team-sheet.
Scott says he likes the idea of working again — as he did promoting a Fisherman’s Blues out-takes box-set in late 2013 — with original Waterboy, Anto Thistlethwaite, and double-bass player, Trevor Hutchinson.
“They’re both great improvisers, as well. Anto and Steve [Wickham] have a wonderful coherence, musically,” he says of multi-instrumentalist Thistlethwaite, whose saxophone was such an integral part of The Waterboys’ first three LPs.
It raises the question of how to define The Waterboys musically, something that usually changes with each album.
They really are an unclassifiable band. “Well, it’s a mug’s game trying to put The Waterboys into a box, so I just don’t go there. It’s a real mix and good luck to anyone who tries to sum us up.”