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The Waterboys - "The Irish Basement Tapes"
on 4 November 2013
This review is of the Waterboys "Fisherman's Blues Deluxe Edition" a birthday present that arrived with angels wings. It is difficult to recall today the sniffy response this album received on release. It was seen by many as a deviation from the "Big Music" which Mike Scott had driven so hard and with such passion on previous releases. It was argued that "Fisherman's Blues" was a sharp rupture from the Waterboys previous output; a unfortunate dalliance with "traditionalism". In fact it was a logical continuation of Scotts great vision. The brilliant "This is the Sea" is full of Celtic inflections and he was always a musical magpie drawing from an astonishing gamut of styles and influences. What is fascinating about this release is the sheer scale of experimentation, exploration and emotion that went into constructing a single album. "Fishermans box" proves that Scott, Wickham, Thistlethwaite and comrades in effect recorded the "Irish Basement Tapes". It is a magnificent box, VFM in spades and if the packing quality could have been notched up a ratchet or two, the music implores us to live with the shame. Below is a review of the six main discs of the box set. The primary source for much of the information is the detailed analysis in the excellent booklet in the set plus the Waterboys web site (well worth checking out)) onto which this reviewer has added some personal thoughts.
CD 1 was recorded in its entirety on Jan 23 1986, the first day of the Fisherman's Blues sessions. Thus begins a journey for the band in to new territory which was ill understood by critics who roundly berated the departure from the powerhouse rock of "A Pagan Place" and the anthems of "This is the sea" in what was described by one critic at the time as a "descent into a folk backwater". Scott admits that he had become obsessed with Irish music although the songs on this desk are an electric mix of old country and gospel numbers plus new originals. Two of the tracks "Fisherman's Blues" and the cover of Van Morrison's "Sweet Thing" are remasters from the original album and sound great. The cover of Dylan's "Girl from the north Country" is excellent but has been aired before ditto "Meet me at the station" Of the unreleased stuff the cover of Hank Williams "I'm so lonesome I could cry" is workmanlike but the piano version of "World Party" is a joy. The highlight however is a 10 minute long feast of the live staple "Saints and Angels" finally released in album form.
CD 2 was recorded between March and September 1986 in Dublin's Windmill Lane Studio. You can hear Scott and co really beginning to breath out and expand their musical reach. The period sees them jumping with musical ease from country, blues and folk music. It opens with one of the greatest Waterboys songs the sheer power of "We will not be lovers" now at its remastered best. It remains an inescapable puzzle of life why "Too Close To Heaven" was left off the main album unless its length just precluded inclusion. Scott's obsession with Hank Williams continues with a nice version of "Lost Highway" which in turn impacted on later songs with Bonny Bramlett's and Leon Russell's "Lonesome and a long way from home" being a case in point. The bulk of tracks on this disc are previously unreleased and whilst including some fragments highlights include the prototype "Higherbound" and a rousing version of "Will the Circle be unbroken".
CD 3 was recorded Dec 2-7 1986 in Fantasy Studios, California, with producer Bob Johnston and access to a range of top notch US session musicians not least the brilliant drummer Jim Keltner. As for the songs the great remaster of "Lonesome Old Wind" sounds superb and gives further proof what a great singer Mike Scott is. Ditto the pounding sax driven "Blues for your baby". Ok the cover of the Beatles "Sgt Peppers" was clearly great fun in the studio but perhaps should have stayed there. Yet taking the rough with the smooth is the key to enjoying this box set. Alternatively the early version of "You in the sky" is a clear equal to the smoother remaster. This disc also majors on prototype versions of several songs and another 11 tracks are previously unreleased.
CD 4 was recorded between December 1986 & February 1987. The nucleus of the Fisherman's blues sound is too be found on this disc not least in the stunning "I will meet you in heaven again" and the in particular Waterboys classics like the 11-minute "Higher In Time Symphony". This is a song which suggests that FB should have at least been a double on release. "The Golden Age" actually sounds like a mix of alt country and Irish music while Anton Thistlethwaite singing on "Billy The Kid" should have convinced Scott to hand the microphone over more regularly. A fair chunk of this disk was on the 2006 remaster and "Higherbound" is not quite perfected on this disk. 10 tracks here are previously unreleased.
CD 5 was recorded Feb-Sept 1987, mostly in Dublin's Windmill Lane. "Higher bound" is completely signed, sealed and delivered at last. Songs like the earlier version of "When will be married" are more traditionally Irish than the final album versions, It contains unreleased songs and nice versions of the album mainstays "Fisherman's Blues" and "Strange Boat" which has a slightly Phil Spectorish ambience to it. Granted the blues version of "If I cant have you" is solid but not necessarily a key track and on this disk the recorded studio foolery sees tracks like "Headphone mix song" wearing a bit thin. Yet who can deny that overall Disc 5 is one of the key culmination stages on this musical journey with 12 tracks here are previously unreleased.
CD 6 contains all the recordings made at Spiddal House, near Galway, in the spring of 1988. The Celtic folk influences scream out of this disc which has the highest level of previously unreleased tracks - some 17 songs altogether. Indeed this is "Fisherman's Blues" evolving into "Room to Roam" with two versions on the disk of that albums "In Search of the Rose" (which Scotts perfectionism took to 99 takes) and an early "Spring comes to Spiddal". It contains a nice version of the classic Scottish folk song "Two Recruiting Sergeants" a song popularised by The Corries and the evolution of Yeats "Stolen Child" which finally evolves from piano and vocal demo to full recording. It also confirms emphatically that "When Ye Go Away" is truly one of Scott's greatest songs. The version of Guthrie's "This Land is your Land" is rather disposable but rounding the whole thing is off with a sweet version of Dylan's "Bucket of Rain" from "Blood on the Tracks" is a nice touch.
And so the curtain comes down on a musical feast of the highest order. It was the producer Richard Curtis who once boldly ventured the opinion that 'I'm starting to feel, to my own surprise, that the Waterboys are the next best group after the Beatles". Perhaps a claim to far; but at the same time the ongoing misperception of this band as some sort of hazy 1980s relic is a criminal understatement of Mike Scott's musical importance and premier status in the canon of rock music. With "Fisherman's Box" there is now tangible and overwhelming proof of the Waterboys standing as one of the most important British bands of the past 25 years who fully achieved their aim of producing "The Big Music". You really do struggle to think of other musicians who embarked on such an authentic eclectic pilgrimage. that took in so many pit stops and which led to such joyous quality outcomes. "Fishermans Box" is a true musical event.