Irish Adventures of a Waterboy

Mike Scott, Kenmare, May 1987. Photo: Sean Brady Photography.

Irish Adventures of a Waterboy

From his memoir Adventures of a Waterboy, published recently by Lilliput Press, Mike Scott here describes his early encounters with Irish traditional music, and how the fateful move to Spiddal and 'the Celtic dreamtime' came about.

While flying back to Dublin after a show in Edinburgh on World Aids Day, 1 April 1987…

By stepping out of the music-business machinery at the end of 1985 we’d established our independence, but I’d felt for some time The Waterboys should evolve into something more organic than just another rock band putting out albums and touring in the prescribed way. Now suddenly I knew how it would look. I leaned back in my seat high above the Irish Sea and imagined The Waterboys recast as a colourful travelling musical explosion, rooted in the magical folklore of the British Isles and expressing a holistic non-dogmatic spirituality, becoming legendary not through studio trickery or the artifice of promo videos but through what we wrote and played and by connecting directly with the audience. And all this while having a damn good time.

At the Pictish Festival, Letham, in Scotland one month later…

The concert had been going all day and was running hopelessly late. We Free Kings were on before us and when their fiddler didn’t turn up, Wickham stepped into the breach and played their whole set. The Waterboys finally took the stage shortly before one in the morning and the atmosphere was dense; thick with drunkenness and excitement, a wild tartan bacchanalia. We poured our music into this atmosphere, playing until almost 4 am. We closed with ‘A Pagan Place’ and during its extended outro, with Roddy Lorimer’s trumpet soaring and Vinnie’s pipes wailing, several members of other bands onstage with us, and a freight-train mother groove roaring around our heads, a critical mass of musical wildness was achieved. With a sudden ‘Pop!’ I felt us come into alignment with a down-flow of power, some bright shard of the Celtic soul, wild and ecstatic, that flowed through us and into the audience like a rite.

When we stumbled outside for air, dawn was softening the sky and the birds were singing. I stood, ears ringing, feeling the breeze on my skin. Something had just happened, some piece of the new Waterboys vision had slotted into place and it had to do with the Celtic. I was Celtic, and so were most of my band. But it was something I’d never consciously thought about before. What did it mean to be Celtic? I would find out soon enough, in a new and magical landscape that was about to open up before me: the west of Ireland. The west of Ireland means Ireland’s great Atlantic seaboard: from County Donegal in the north, southwards through Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Clare and Kerry to the western parts of County Cork. I’d been there a few times: a childhood holiday in Sligo, a couple of concerts in Galway and some brief trips with the Fellow who Fiddles or my girlfriend Irene. But it was during a trip to County Kerry a week after the Pictish Festival that I began to comprehend what was special about the west.…

B.P. Fallon had been raving about an upcoming festival called the Cibeal, held in Kenmare, close to the Cork and Kerry border. It sounded magical indeed; a little market town taken over for the weekend by music and high spirits, with festivities in the street and an influx of trad players, gypsies and rock bands. ‘It’ll be shaking, man!’ said B.P. in his hushed, intense voice. Anto and I decided to go down with him…

My girlfriend Irene, who’d come with us, wanted to take me to the late- night show at the Park Hotel to see a hot trad-music supergroup called Patrick Street. Their accordion player Jackie Daly was local and as dusk descended on the festive town a heavily accented male voice crackled through the tannoy speakers that hung from every lamppost, cajoling all and sundry to ‘coom and hear Jackie Daly an’ his friends oop at the Perk’. Oop at the Perk the atmosphere was electric and the grand ballroom was packed. I’d heard a lot of trad music on tape and record and I’d gamely played along with the Fellow who Fiddles when he cracked into jigs at rehearsals, but I’d never seen trad played live by master musicians or heard it amplified through a PA system. A revelation was in store.

Patrick Street looked like the archetype of a folk band: beards, waistcoats, brown tweed jackets and flared jeans, fiddle, accordion, bouzouki guitar. And when they started playing their nimble jigs and reels it sounded pretty much like all the other traditional Irish music I’d heard, sweet on the ear but likely to leave me as it found me. Then I looked at Irene: standing beside me on the ballroom floor, she was rapt. I watched her and began to see she wasn’t listening so much to the tunes, the melodies. She was connected to the energy of the music, its rhythm and spirit. And as I observed my lovely Irish girlfriend responding to the sound, whooping spontaneously at a moment of emphasis, swaying like a willow in the wind as the tune picked up rhythm, lifting her arms high over her head in joy when the music revved up a gear, I began to understand and to feel the energy myself. At one point she turned to me with a quizzical look as if to say, ‘Now do you see?’ And by God, I did. I looked at the crowd and they were all plugged into the music like Irene, receiving its pulse and force in the same way as a rock audience, except this transmission was on a different, finer wavelength. And it had balls – amped up loud through a sound system, trad music packed a serious visceral punch.

After the concert we hooked up with Anto, B.P. and Liam and played music in someone’s hotel suite, making up strange songs that were sung once and never heard of again. In the small hours of the morning Irene and I drove twenty miles over the mountains to Killarney where we’d booked a room. As we journeyed the empty road in sweet silence, the events of the day buzzed in my memory and the sounds of trad music echoed ecstatically in my mind. And all around us a mighty Celtic dawn was breaking. The clouds and the high faces of the mountains were burnt scarlet by the rising sun and the landscape on either side of the narrow road looked prehistoric and wild. Nothing would be the same again: I had left one world and entered another.

Four months later…

I’d started hanging out with piper Vinnie [Kilduff] who lived in the street next to mine in Ranelagh, on Dublin’s southside. Vinnie was a dapper Brylcreemed fellow with a maroon waistcoat, a head full of craftiness and an insatiable appetite for hedonism – a cross between Brer Rabbit and Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows. He would stand in the middle of his living room, its walls covered with Irish movie posters and dodgy pop pin-ups torn from the pages of Smash Hits, a straw-thin reefer dangling from his lips, while holding forth on the stylistic differences between tin-whistle players in adjacent townlands of County Mayo. An ever-voluble font of information on all things trad, Vinnie became my guide, initiating me into the mysteries of Irish music and bringing me to sessions; not recording sessions but pub sessions, the lifeblood of the trad scene, in which musicians sat around a table and played tunes – reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas and slides – while the bustle of the pub went on around them. To enter a Dublin bar and find a gaggle of musicians firing off joyful, celebratory music is a delightful experience, as any lucky tourist will confirm. And to my ears it was heaven. Here was a wild, articulate music that expressed the soul of Ireland and evoked its landscape, played with power but without machismo, with mastery but without ego. How this appealed to me in my weary and confused condition! The charms of traditional music emerged from the mist as eternal verities to be envied and achieved, emanations from a world far removed from the manipulative, distorted ghetto of the rock business.

Soon this education was expanding my musical consciousness and changing the way I listened: trad tunes flew by so fast I had to sharpen my wits just to follow what was happening, and as I drew closer to the music I discovered sophistication at work – nuance, ornamentation, interplay, the personality of individual players, all of which my ears had to learn to grasp and my mind to process. And the instruments! Dusty bustling fiddles, sputtering banjos, melo- deons and button accordions that sounded like trails of winking lights, the primal wail of the pipes, the thrum and plash of the bouzouki, the lonesome purity of the whistle and the warm quizzical burr of the flute all recast the musical colour scheme of my imagination and resonated with new possibilities, the promise of magic. In addition to Vinnie ’s ministrations, our sound man John Dunford was turning me on with live recordings of the great Irish groups he’d worked with like Moving Hearts and De Dannan, and slipping me preconception-busting albums by The Bothy Band, full of elemental, Promethean music.

The Fellow who Fiddles and bassist Trevor caught the bug too. Trevor taught himself bouzouki while Wickham got busy learning tunes from the trad player’s bible O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, an inch-thick yellow tome containing a thousand manuscripted melodies with archaic titles like ‘The Fiddler’s Frolic’, ‘The Bashful Bachelor’ and ‘Banish Misfortune’. As 1987 marched to a close all influences conspired to bring The Waterboys ever deeper into traditional music and the older, wilder world it represented.

I spent that New Year in Scotland and bought some Scottish folk records while I was there. When I listened to them I recognized the music was the same as Irish, only a different vernacular: harder, more angular perhaps, and paradoxically more strait-laced and less free, but as like to it as brother and sister and flowing from the same Celtic wellspring. And many of the tunes I’d been hearing in Dublin, I realized, were Scottish. This was a revelation. As a teenager I’d considered Scottish folk music a hinterland of kilted buffoonery. Now I heard it anew, and the music I was in love with was the music of my own ancestors. In the bloom of their youth on the Isle of Mull my great-grandparents themselves might well have shaken a leg to ‘The Fiddler’s Frolic’.

I flew back to Dublin in the grip of a dream, devouring Celtic albums on my Walkman at the rate of nine or ten a day, and having made the decision to go immediately to the west of Ireland, the cradle of Celtic culture. I wasn’t up for dabbling; I wanted to step fully into this older world, absorb it, become it and bring back what I found, however long it took. And despite the pressure of the unfinished album, I was relaxed about time. A Canadian band, the Cowboy Junkies, mining the same vein of country and American roots we’d been exploring for two years, had pipped us by releasing The Trinity Sessions. That horse had bolted. And with The Joshua Tree, on which I heard the spiritual seeker vision and big music of the last two Waterboys albums recalibrated as towering arena rock, U2 had relieved us of the responsibility of making the follow-up to This Is the Sea. I was free to explore, and both the road less travelled and the way of fascination pointed towards the Celtic dreamtime.

And so on a cold, clear afternoon in early January 1988, John Dunford drove me to Ireland’s west coast to look for a cottage I could rent for a few months.

This extract is copyright Mike Scott, 2012. Mike Scott’s book, Adventures of a Waterboy is published by Lilliput Press. lilliputpress.ie

Mike Scott, Steve Wickham and Anto Thistlethwaite will reunite for two special shows in Spiddal, County Galway, Ireland, on Tuesday, 25 September. This is the first time The Waterboys have ever played a formal concert in Spiddal. The shows will be at Park Lodge Hotel at 4pm and 7.30pm, for the benefit of The Circle Of Life project to build a commemorative garden in Galway in memory of organ donors. Also on the bill are Alec Finn and Charlie Lennon, both contributors to the Fisherman’s Blues sessions, and Eleanor Shanley. Tickets for the afternoon show are available here.

The following evening, Wednesday, 26 September, Scott will give a reading from Adventures of a Waterboy at the Station House Theatre, Clifden, Co Galway as part of Clifden Arts Week. Scott will be accompanied for a short musical set by Steve Wickham. Tickets are available from here or by phone from +353 91 442 730. This will be Scott’s first visit to Clifden’s annual festival since he turned up unannounced a quarter of a century ago and played an impromptu gig at the local school.

Published on 8 August 2012

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