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Show Review: The Waterboys at North Park Observatory in San Diego


The Waterboys and I do NOT go way back. I’m now embarrassed to admit that just a year ago, I had no idea who they were. I only found out because my band’s booker got us a gig at The Field, an Irish pub in downtown San Diego. Having learned that stating the obvious was a good idea when dealing with us, said booker asked “you are going to play a few Irish songs, right?” I figured Flogging Mollie would be a good bet. We learned “Drink & Fight.” Then, our drummer suggested “Fisherman’s Blues.” Pretty good song, and unlike most of the others, we’ve played it ever since.

Still, I figured The Waterboys were basically one-hit wonders. Until last Saturday. My drummer – and good buddy – hit me up in the morning. He and our singer were going to see The Waterboys at the Observatory that night. “Want me to get you a ticket?” I figured, why not? A night with boys watching a lame opening act and seeing The Waterboys play “Fisherman’s Blues” and maybe an hour of old songs. That passes for a pretty good Saturday night in my book. How wrong I was.

At the Observatory, the crowd was good. But we got a spot down front. Then came the first indication that I was in for a surprise. My drummer said, “I checked out their set lists and they’re doing 2 sets, no opening act.”

Then they hit the stage. And before the band played a note, I had the feeling I was in for a treat. Mike Scott, the band leader, came out looking like Mick Jagger, circa 1999, but wearing a cowboy hat, sun glasses, and his pajamas — the kind where the shirt and pants have the same pattern. Despite all that, Scott had an authentic swagger that evoked a combination of the best parts of Bruce Springsteen and Joe Strummer. When Scott hit the opening chord of “Where the Action Is,” I realized there was a little Keith Richards in there too. And the rest of the band were killer — Aongus Ralston on bass; Ralph Salmins on drums; Brother Paul on Hammond B3 and sometimes piano, and the fabulous Steve Wickham on electric fiddle and occasionally guitar. Scott rotated between an electric 6-string, 12 and 6 string acoustics, and an electric piano.

Waterboys’ novice that I still was at that moment, I assumed that “Where the Action Is” was one of their hits from back in the day. OK, so they had two good songs and can still rock. Little did I know, they were just getting started. The third song was “Fisherman’s Blues.” It kicked ass, of course. But I was thinking, how can they play their best song third in the set? How are they going to keep the energy up? With a boatload of great songs, that’s how. And as I would learn after I got home, a bunch of them are brand new, including “Where the Action Is,” which is the title cut from their latest album.

“Fisherman’s Blues” led into a cover of “Dead Flowers.” I love it that all the great bands seem to be playing covers these days. My only disappointment of the night was that this was the only cover. Well, sort of. People were shouting out songs all night, which amused Mike Scott. At one point, he told a story about going to see an art-rock guitarist and shouting for “Hang on Sloppy” the whole night. He then started playing the intro and singing “Hang on Sloppy.” I think it was spontaneous because the rest of the band didn’t seem to know what was going on. They tried to join in. But Scott cut it off after about 30 seconds. I was disappointed, but also thrilled.

After playing “A Girl Called Johnny,” one of their earliest songs, Scott introduced another new song, “London Mick,” part homage to Mick Jones, part description of Scott’s relationship with the legend dating back to the Clash days. Next came an amazing version of “Still a Freak,” from the 2015 album Modern Blues, which I have to think is autobiographical for Scott at some level. “I’m still a freak, I never went straight.”

Scott then told another great story to introduce Nashville, Tennessee, a song about Brother Paul. Scott said that he met Paul a few years back. Paul was driving him around Nashville because he doesn’t drive. Scott said, “So, I asked him what he listened to back when we were kids. I said, I was into Bruce Springsteen in the 70s.” The crowd cheered, and Scott said, “You’re reacting, but Brother Paul did not. He sat silently, and I said, well, what were you into? And he responded with one word  . . . KISS.” Scott then invited Brother Paul to become the only American in the band. “Nashville” was on The Waterboys’ 2017 album Out of All This Blue. Scott said he built it around a line Brother Paul would regularly say, “My soul is in Memphis, but my ass is in Nashville, Tennessee.”

They closed the first set with “Medicine Bow,” just the second song of the set from the band’s early days in the 80s, and finally another brand-new song “Ladbroke Grove Symphony.” I was the mole in “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” as we fought our way back to the bar for another beer.

The second set opened with – what else – another relatively new, incredible song from Out of All This Blue called “Man, What a Women.” Scott then said, “things are not looking good for the orange defiler” and without saying more launched into “Rosalin (You Married the Wrong Guy).” Perfect message to the Americans from the Irishman.

Next, Scott had a few words for Ginger Baker and a tribute drum solo by Ralph Salmins. “We Will Not Be Lovers” from the Fisherman’s Blues album, and the 2017 single “If the Answer is Yeah” followed. I don’t know if I started paying more attention after Scott told the story about him, but I thought Brother Paul’s B3 playing soared to amazing levels as the second set went on.

“Nearest Thing to Hip,” another one from Out of All This Blue, came out and I’m thinking, how did I not know about all these great songs? Two more recent songs — “November Tale” and “Morning Came Too Soon” — led into the closing song, the amazing – how many times can I write that – “In My Time on Earth” from Where The Action Is. The show opener and closer both from the band’s latest album and easily good enough to hold those spots with pride in a show that never once let up.

We clapped, and whistled, and howled. Then we did it some more. I started thinking that maybe they wouldn’t come back out! We had to earn in, and why not, they did all night. Finally, The Waterboys returned to the stage, and Scott sat behind the electric piano as he had for a few other songs. “The Whole of the Moon,” Scott’s self-deprecating tribute to the giants on whose shoulders he would stand, fittingly ended a great night for the entire audience and a revelatory one for me. I so much wanted another song. But understood somehow why we didn’t get one. I’ve been lucky enough to see some great shows in my day. From the smallest – M Ward opening for My Morning Jacket on the It Still Moves tour at the old 4th and B – to closing night on the Born in the USA tour at the LA Coliseum. On this Saturday night, Mike Scott and his Waterboys were as good as any of them.

Of course, I went home and found out all the things that I didn’t know about The Waterboys during the show. Scott’s talents are immense. He could have done so many things. But he chose to rock and roll, or more likely, it was the other way around.

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