On May 24, The Waterboys released Where the Action Is, their thirteenth album (fifteenth if you count Mike Scott’s solo branded records from the 90s). Discovering wonderful music from a new artist creates a sense of excitement (and sometimes heartache) that we all live for. When I heard, for example, Twenty Something by The Schuberts or Reece McHenry’s Bye, Bye Baby – they were brand new to me, and I felt that special joy.
But there’s something sweeter still when an artist who’s been doing it for a long time proves that they’ve still got it. In 78, when Some Girls came out, or 85 when Fogerty finally got it together and released Centerfield. And this year, Springsteen’s Western Stars falls into this category.
Those records, though – great as they’ve been to us – are works of fiction. Didn’t Bob Geldof make that point about Springsteen way back when? “The magic rat did not drive his sleek machine over the Jersey state line.” There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Springsteen even acknowledged it in his Broadway show. Memory Motel is one of the best songs of 2019. But it is unmistakably fiction. It’s very good fiction, but it’s not real.
What Mike Scott, the leader, guitarist, and songwriter for The Waterboys, does on Where the Action Is, well, it ain’t fiction. It’s like he cut open a vain and recorded what flowed out.
The title track opens the album with chugging C chord and the infectious lyric, “let’s go baby, where the action is.” Brother Paul Brown’s Hammond wails, Steve Wickham runs his fiddle through a fuzz box to create an amazing lead guitar sound, Ralph Salmins drums and Aongus Ralston’s bass make it big, and Jess Kavanaugh’s and Zeenie Summers’s vocals soar. It’s a tour de force. Scott borrows the title lyric – but nothing else – from the mid-60s Robert Parker song about finding a hot dance club. The Waterboys use the lyric to conjure an entirely different vibe. The imagery is dense and foggy. It seems both anti-establishment and personal in a single blow. And the video captures the defiance perfectly with what looks like no more than a green screen and an iphone. I can’t describe it. I just love it.
Next up is “London Mick.” To call it a tribute to Mick Jones would be both true and not the whole story. Scott pays homage to Jone’s licks, while describing his developing relationship with the Clash guitarist from young fan whose idol buys him a Coke to a musical peer who never lost the awe that Jones’s greatness inspired. Imagine watching Spinal Tap with Mick Jones? I can’t. But I’d like to watch it with Mike Scott. He captures the openness, generosity, and love for fashion that Jones embodied back in the day.
“Out of All this Blue” and “Right Side of Heartbreak (Wrong Side of Love)” are serious relationship-gone-bad songs. Scott wrote the former in 2016 and used it for the title of The Waterboys’ 2017 album. But then, he didn’t include the song on the album, saving it instead for Where the Action Is. In September, as a preview to their American tour, Scott released an EP with both versions of the song. It’s emotionally powerful. But nothing could eclipse the extraordinary “Right Side of Heartbreak (Wrong Side of Love).” A man-to-man exploration of a buddy’s inner hurt that keeps him from finding the love he desperately wants . . . that keeps him “on the right side of heartbreak and the wrong side of love.” If you’re not that guy, you know him. Scott doesn’t necessarily make any headway with his friend. At least he tries. Can we say as much? There’s a musical influence apparent in this one; it’s on the tip of my tongue. If you can hear it, help me out in the comments.
At this point, Where the Action Is goes from the stratosphere to the moon. “In My Time on Earth” and “Ladbroke Grove Symphony” are songs of confession and memory looking in opposite directions, yet looping back around. The band used them both as set closers on their current tour.
“My Time” is a mature man’s look back at a youth filled with self-doubt, false confidence, and pain, but also truth. He’s older now and can see it. Able to move forward with confidence that “in my time on this earth, I will speak the secret . . . [and] tell what is true. In my time on earth,” he tells his younger self, “I will say I am you.”
“Landbroke Grove” is a more immediate memory. Almost a flashback to special time and place where everything clicked. The verse about writing a song is the most evocative meta-lyric I’ve ever heard.
I remember a hot
Sticky summer night
I was in a sweet spot
I was hungry to write
The sound systems roared
They made the houses shake
My imagination soared
And like a storm that breaks
Savage Earth Heart
Tumbled through my brain
A bolt or a download
From another wilder, higher plane
I guess you had to be there. But I was there. And if you were too, you will know what I mean. And then, the song takes a left turn. The singer has to leave this place that fit him so well. And he does it, as we do in our youth, thinking only of the road ahead without appreciating what we leave behind. In the final verse, he tries to go back. It’s not that the place or even the vibe was different. But he was – “I was in the way and I was way out time.” The experience leaves a wound. But he goes on to “scheme again, on some other street.” The song fades into the sounds of that street, and then someone says with a tone of expectation despite what’s come before “take me there, I will follow you.”
And that – it turns out – is the title of the next song. It’s a rap song with an infectious chorus. If the guy in “Ladbroke Grove Symphony” left Shangri-La a little too soon, the girl he sings to in “Take Me There I Will Follow You” has stayed more than a little too long. And it’s clear which is the better choice.
“And There’s Love” keeps the memory train rolling with an ode to an old lover who was, after all, the embodiment of that elusive emotion. Did he realize it at the time? It seems like he did, and through all the pain, it was worth it. “Then She Made The Lasses O” is Irish folk song with more traditional fiddle that tells the same story from a different place. Inspired by Robert Burns’s “Green Grow the Rashes O,” it draws you in, and then, at 1:47 it just stops. After the briefest pause, a little piano coda sets the mood for . . . well, the pacing on this album is what an album should be. So, you know something special is coming.
And it’s a nine-minute poem set to music, “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” drawing from Kenneth Graham’s The Wind and the Willows. A water rat and his mole friend sail to a small island in the middle of a stream to discover a sense of peace and inspiration that the rat once found there and wanted to share with his friend. Okay, if you haven’t heard it, I know what you’re thinking. “This kind of thing is inevitably corny.” I mean, how could it not be, right? Well, somehow, it works. The only thing I can compare it to is Van Morrison’s “On Hyndford Street” and “Coney Island,” if Van had been more of an outsider. It creates in your mind’s eye that sense of wonder for “just one moment” that is so hard recognize even if you have the privilege to see it and strength not to ask, as Van did, “wouldn’t it be great if it could be like this all the time.”
You can read more about the band and buy Where the Action Is on the band’s website: https://www.mikescottwaterboys.com/