Review by Paul H Birch and photos by Rich Ward
Two acoustic guitarists saunter on stage, plug in, smile, and begin to serenade us with a kitchen sink drama called ‘Dyin’ to Turn You On’. Suited with black frizzy hair and beard to match, a clear theatrical nuance to his voice Freddie Stevenson uses observational humour and literal wordplay to good effect, assisted by Joe Chester who employs an early 60s Brit-beat approach to his picking and embellishing his sound with effects pedals. Telling stories and bantering politely between numbers, Stevenson offers a relaxed, unrushed feel to the proceedings, and the audience oblige spending quality time in his company; applauding a variety of songs including album title track ‘The City is King’, the poetical ‘I Am The Ocean’ and an upbeat ‘Tonight’ wherein Chester gets an amazing fuzz sound out of his acoustic, and the pair concluding like a rock ’n’ rolling Simon & Garfunkel with ‘I Own This Town’.
Tonight the Alexandra’s usherettes are proudly telling those they’re showing to their seats that this is a sold-out show, as is this whole Fisherman’s Blues Revisited tour; a 25th anniversary celebration for The Waterboys’ hit album. This is outside my comfort zone; while familiar with the band I do not consider myself intimate with their work and certainly not their stagecraft so have no idea how this is going to pan out. As the lights dim, a backdrop depicts the house featured on the Fisherman’s Blues album and from its generally vicinity we hear a busking guitar as Mike Scott strums his way forward to the centre stage microphone and general applause as he prepares those gathered for the musical journey ahead, singing: “We’re sailing in a strange boat”. The audience whoops like an American arena crowd as a bow soars across a fiddle and Steve Wickham sweeps on stage right, dressed like a sharp-suited poacher gate-crashing a wedding party; and as one’s eye shifts to the other side multi-instrumentalist Anthony Thistlethwaite is already there, lit by spotlight, playing a brief harmonica refrain. There’s obviously something epic and iconic in the three of them sharing a stage, you can feel the audience electrified by it. The sound is crystal clear as tonight’s Celtic serenade ensues.
Trevor Hutchinson and Ralph Salmins move across the backline and gently settle in to their respective rhythm section positions. As the night will prove they are a taught unfussy anchor to the melodic flights of improvisational fantasy of Wickham and Thistlethwaite, who’s now got an electric mandolin wrapped round his neck.
“Nice place you’ve got here” Scott exclaims, looking about the theatre. His now grey locks are topped with a fedora, he also sports spectacles, but visually remains an elegant rapscallion – He could be Ian Hunter’s younger brother, and the pair of them probably share some illicit DNA with Dylan whose ‘Girl from the North Country’ the band will do a fine rendition of later. For the present they’re going through numbers almost as effortlessly entertaining as the laidback back Thistlethwaite will change between playing saxophone and mandolin.
Scott seats himself at an electric piano to vamp the opening to ‘A Girl Called Johnny’. Terse to begin with, by the end Thistlethwaite’s sax is wailing to the heavens, wrapping notes sensually within themselves, and I’m happily reminded that only two weeks back, in basically the same position, Lysette Anthony’s long stockinged-legs were themselves coiled round an actor during a performance of Agatha Christie’s Go Back for Murder on this very stage. Suitably for this memory, Scott sings with passion. “I’m 54” he announces later on. The passing of years has lowered the tone of his voice; there’s a syrupy rasp to it where there was previously a nasal inflection, and it gives it a gravitas that makes you listen to the lyrics more keenly.
Hutchinson also gets to swop instruments during the evening, moving from electric to stand-up acoustic bass for the first time on a spellbinding ‘When Ye Go Away’ as the soloists head off in various directions. From behind the piano, Scott introduces the band properly and goes into a monologue about this being the 25th anniversary of Fisherman’s Blues and the stories behind it, how they’re playing songs off it plus tracks recorded at the time and now available on the Fisherman’s Box set. From interviews, I’d got the impression he wasn’t the approachable sort, but tonight he comes across like a bloke you’d enjoy sharing a dram of whisky with, or being wined and dined if you’re female. As the songs continue we get the belting Irish jig of ‘When Will We Be Married’, a cover of Ray Charles’ ‘Come Live With Me’ that steers us into Miles Davis jazz territory, country singer Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ slowed down and mellow, and what I expect most of the audience have come for: the full-on power of this ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ band ranging from an emotionally raging ‘Don’t Bang the Drum’ to a glorious, almost sexually transcendental ‘We Will Not Be Lovers’.
With ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ itself the audience rise as one, and I quickly follow suit not wanting to look like the proverbial you-know-what out of water. Something of a revelation when its lead fiddle soared across the nation’s airwaves making it a hit, tonight the twirling dervish virtuoso that Wickham has played so effortlessly that he casts a long shadow over Birmingham’s own premier violinist Nigel Kennedy. Wickham returns to the stage first for their first encore, a solo rendition of ‘Dunford’s Fancy’, then the jigging audience throw their arms in the air and claw back their youth as the band deliver a celebratory electric mandolin power-chorded version of ‘Whole of the Moon’.
This has been an evening of wild romance picking at pagan elements of Velvet Underground darkness and Goth’s entropic despair given accessibility with a Celtic rock heartbeat and a retooling of their synth-pop songs to connect beyond the times they were first written and for the various age-groups gathered here tonight. That they’ve been played by a group of excellent musicians who know how to connect with each other is the topping on what’s been a surprising treat. Scott and Thistlethwaite, armed with acoustic and mandolin, return to encore yet again with a tender version of ‘How Long Will I Love You’ wherein Thistlethwaite pulls out the most amazing musical phrases and unlikely dextrously fingered chord shapes. I assume that’s it, the show ending with the way it began with this pairing of The Waterboys but Thistlethwaite is soon moving between sax and heavy pumping organ with the return of the rest of the band plus Freddie Stevenson and Joe Chester, as Scott sings of loves lost to time and cheating hearts as they deliver a rollicking version of ‘And A Bang on the Ear’ to a dancing audience. When stools are brought on stage, it’s not for the band to finally catch their breath but pose as they did 25 years ago for the Fisherman’s Blues front cover and have their photos snapped as digital phone memoirs by their long-time fans, whereas, as their latest enthusiast I get to share with you Rich Ward’s photos of the band in full flight!
- Strange Boat
- Higher Bound
- You in the Sky
- A Girl Called Johnny
- Girl From the North Country
- Stranger to Me
- When Ye Go Away
- When Will We Be Married?
- Come Live With Me
- The Raggle Taggle Gypsy
- We Will Not Be Lovers
- I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
- Don’t Bang the Drum
- Sweet Thing/Blackbird
- On My Way To Heaven
- Fisherman’s Blues
- Dunford’s Fancy
- The Whole of the Moon
- How Long Will I Love You?
- And a Bang on the Ear
See more of Rich’s photos here;