The Waterboys at 9:30 Club

Scottish Celtic rock band the Waterboys perform at the 9:30 Club in DC. Photo: The Waterboys

WASHINGTON, November 5, 2013 — The way cultural memory works, the 1980s don’t seem like they were all that long ago. There is so much in the way of rehashing, reminiscing, and retooling that the concept of the ‘80s – decidedly more than any other decade it seems – never seems to go away completely. This has been the essential premise behind the Waterboys since they reunited 2000, and was the underlying concept driving their recent show here at the 9:30 Club

Any band that has once possessed a measure cultural cachet will eventually be motivated to make a comeback from time to time until its prominent members are either incapacitated or go to meet their Maker. Why should they give up something that they clearly enjoying doing that many people still clearly want to see? 

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It’s not even about a band staying relevant, because in almost every case, they never hit their previous peak from a creative or even a financial standpoint. In the end, all of these comebacks and retrospectives feel as if they’re just about performing, reliving the good old days, perhaps picking up some new, younger fans, but above all not giving up on the one thing a performer or band wanted to do nearly 30 years ago with such passion.

To the Waterboys though—or more specifically, front man Mike Scott—the band’s heyday has to seem like it happened forever and a day ago, although the elapsed time might seem considerably shorter to the audience. One of the reasons for this dichotomy is that Scott’s been performing and singing all these familiar songs for nearly 30 years. True, there were some songs from the Waterboys’ newer period in their set here. But most of the evening’s program came from the first era of the band’s existence.

Part of the reason for this is the substantial amount of turnover in the Waterboys’ line-up since the band formed in Edinburgh in 1981. Scott has seen over 70 musicians perform with him on stage during that time, with Steve Wickham being the only long time member still remaining with the band.

Part of the reason the band broke up in the early ‘90s to begin with was Scott’s desire to embrace his own solo career. But he eventually realized there isn’t much of a difference – if any – between Mike Scott’s music and the output of the Waterboys.

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That continuity has meant a lot to the Waterboys’ sound. There’s a lot of ground the Waterboys had to cover during their set at the 9:30 Club, yet there’s a noticeable consistency in this band’s sound regardless of what songs they’re performing, whatever the album or the slice of time.

A lot of this has to do with the malleable nature Scott instilled in the Waterboys from the band’s inception. The Waterboys’ early incarnations played up the Celtic/folk nature of the band, while the material immediately following their re-formation took on more of a rock and roll vibe with a lot of big band elements tossed in for good measure.

The Waterboys are easily able to meld these different sounds together into one cohesive whole.  They mix the romantically haunting nature of Celtic folk music with the upbeat swing of basic rock music with the greatest of ease. The different solos and riffs they performed during their 9:30 Club set never seemed out of place, serving instead to enhance the different aspects of each genre.

At the center of all of this is, of course, Mike Scott. His distinctly emotive Scottish vocals put the finishing touches on each number, weaving various literary references into the songs, giving the Waterboys’ output even more depth and meaning. His manner and his vocals served to remind the audience that he’s spent a lifetime—two different phases of it—crafting this specific sound that remains lively and vital even after all these years.

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The Waterboys are a band that’s from the ‘80s. But they are not necessarily of the ‘80s, as they don’t derive anything musical that’s specifically linked to that particular decade, even though that was the period during which they created the audience that showed up at the 9:30 Club. The long trip that the Waterboys have been taking might seem like a lifetime for Mike Scott. Yet he’s always managed to make this voyage seem timeless to the fans sitting there intently listening to the Waterboys play.


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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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