You could say that The Waterboys were late for their appointment with Australia. They formed in 1983, underwent various transformations and line-up changes, a hiatus in the nineties and a reformation in the naughties. Almost thirty years later and the band’s debut show in Sydney was a special one for Sydney Festival titled, An Appointment with Mr Yeats.

The concept is based on the band’s album of the same name. It sees the group putting a range of Irish poet, WB Yeats’ words to music. It’s not the first time that something like this has been done before, but it definitely feels authentic. It is also obvious that this was a true labour of love.

Front man, Mike Scott had the original idea back in the mid-eighties when he initially recorded “The Stolen Child” for their album, Fisherman’s Blues. And like this number, the current batch of songs have been subtly massaged and edited like a lover’s caress to fit in with the band’s sound. This makes the material feel more like their own rather than a mere rehash of old goods.

The State Theatre was transformed into a rich and dramatic vessel as the audience were initially greeted with the sounds of crashing waves and instrumental versions of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and The Stones’ “She’s A Rainbow”. Those rag-tag Waterboys (plus local lady, Sarah Calderwood (backing vocals/flute)) totalled six tonight. The band was also made up of James Hallawell (keys), Marc “Archie” Arciero (bass), Steve Wickham (electric fiddle) and Ralph Salmins (drums).

The first song, “The Hosting of the Shee” set the scene with some Chieftains-sounding folk rock as green and blue lights illuminated the stage. At different points in the evening, various musicians stayed or left the stage, depending on whether their services were required. This lent proceedings a rather ramshackle feel at times. But then, Messer Scott had said that the shows were supposed to be a “Radical statement”. This was because they were completely changing the context of Yeats’ poems and allowing already mythical kaleidoscopes of text to flourish and take on a life of their own.

“News from the Delphic Oracle” felt like words from leather-bound books meeting the kind of upbeat violins you’d associate with the lower decks of the Titanic. The sounds felt like they were full of dark shadows but the overall feeling was positive. This cerebral folk/rock ‘n’ roll was embraced and met with a proper and almost English-like reception as the older crowd sat back and were quiet, save for clapping at all of the appropriate moments.

The narratives were lush and the sounds were layered in order to hold their own against the intense imagery of the poetry. The music was predominantly folk, Celtic, and rock with a dash of psychedelic elements. The proceedings had a real diverse flavour and kept you entertained but I personally would’ve enjoyed some visuals to push this complex art to the next level.

There was a ballad for the diehard romantic, “The Song of Wandering Aengus”. It was light and airy and Scott had a pleasant croon with a hint of smokiness. Scott hadn’t said much between the numbers to begin with but he eventually warmed up and had charisma in spades. He asked us about Australian nursery rhymes and questioned if they even existed before introducing the nostalgic, “A Full Moon In March”. This track could have been a classic number from the sixties thanks to the excellent Hammond organ tones.

From another period to another place and “White Birds” could have been a love note from Bondi Beach. The lyrics described blowing kisses to valentines while Wickham’s electric fiddle cawed like a bird. At first this made people giggle and think about seagulls. But then the mood turned to the blues and the more sombre, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” while “Mad as the Mist & Snow” had as much passion and poetry as a Doors number.

It was a sorry state of history repeating in “September 1913”. This was written by Yeats 100 years ago about corruption and abuse of power and it still manages to resonate to this day. It was obviously close to Scott’s heart even though he joked, “Do you have much politics in Australia?”

Another important track was “Politics”, Yeats’ misty-eyed epitaph. It was a romantic poem about an old man who spies a beauty across the room. He goes on with sentiment and humour to wish with that he could be young again just to woo her. It’s touching stuff.

The Yeats’ material had been a powerful homage to a great man. It had overcome time and latitude and resonated with its Australian audience. It was a respectful transformation, even if some of the numbers were given treatments like delta blues sounds or trippy psychedelic blips that belong in outer space. These sounds may seem incongruous with Yeats’ original vision and yet somehow it all worked. The music wafted over you with just the right amount of feeling and melodrama and it made it easy to see why this group have notched up fans as diverse as: Bono, Eddie Vedder, The Decemberists and Richard Curtis, among others.

The Waterboys had put on a great main act but they really came into their own during the two encores. Their criminally underrated early material lifted the energy in the room faster than you could say “The Whole of the Moon” and listen to its groove and sampled brass. It soared and lived up to its label of “Big music” while “Fisherman’s Blues” made you want to chuck in your day job and live on a river. These were the group’s strongest moments because they were at their most literate, philosophical and spiritual. Ultimately, the evening had been a special debut and delightfully sonic in its thought-provoking moments of Celtic thunder.

Originally published on 25 January 2013 at the following website:

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