Mar 272013

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Mike Scott has found his second wind. 30 years after starting the Waterboys, he and violinist Steve Wickham have just finished playing South by Southwest, and plan a tour at the end of the year to support the 25th anniversary of the album Fisherman’s Blues (Wickham is probably best known to the casual listener as the guy whose violin created the haunting feedback-like tone at the beginning of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”). Fisherman’s Blues found Scott merging the anthemic post-punk pop songs of Waterboys’ first two albums (what Scott called “The Big Music”) with traditional Celtic music, recreating the band’s sound as he has throughout their existence.

The band lost steam around the time of the Room to Roam album, when Scott and Wickham disagreed about which direction the album should go. Cycling through various musicians through the years, the Waterboys’ varietal output caused them to lose some of their audience, and the band dissolved for ten years before rebooting at the beginning of the millennium. It should be said some critics were never on board with their sound — Trouser Press editor Ira Robbins called them “insufferable,” “superficial,” and “unoriginal.” But some of their fans would start other bands, and the Waterboys are often credited with opening the door for multi-instrumentalist groups like the Decemberists and Arcade Fire to gain a wider public following. Let’s take a look behind that door right now…

Ted Leo — Fisherman’s Blues (Waterboys cover)

Ted Leo covers a lot of songs. Playing with his band The Pharmacists, he’s known to cycle a cover or three into every live set, often solo during the encore. While covers of the song “Fisherman’s Blues” are usually a stirring Celtic hootenanny featuring a full band accompaniment, Leo ingeniously creates an arrangement here (from a show at First Avenue in Minneapolis in 2010) where he alternates the verse with a mimic of  the Waterboys’ rousing fiddle bit on his electric guitar. What follows is a full-throated rocker from the heart, no less urgent despite there being a band deficit of at least four or five people.

Tom Jones — Strange Boat (Waterboys cover)

What’s new, pussycat? Oh, nothing, just Tom Jones covering the Waterboys. The lounge singer, well into his 70’s now and still going strong, would be the strangest Waterboys cover if it weren’t for hair metal band L.A. Guns covering the same song. Jones’ shows are well known for women throwing underwear on stage, reportedly a PR stunt thought up by a promoter who wanted to make sure Jones didn’t bomb in Vegas in the ’60s. The trend stuck, and to this day you’ll see fans flinging their thongs as he’s singing his songs (but please ladies, control yourselves: Jones says, “No mas.”) Here he drifts out on a blissful directionless course, with a harmonica and violin serving as his North Star.

Steve Earle — When Will We Be Married? (Waterboys cover)

You would think that “When Will We Be Married” is a question Steve Earle shouldn’t really ask, considering he had just ended his fourth marriage in 1988 at the time of this recording. But it proved to be a pertinent question—he’s been hitched three more times since then. The song itself is a traditional song, but even Earle admits in the recording that he heard the Waterboys sing it first (indeed, Mike Scott is credited with the arrangement), and there doesn’t seem to be much recorded history for the song.

The Celtic sound is really different for Earle, who is more known for his roots rock songs, but combined with the huskiness in his voice it recalls Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, released years later. At the end of the song, the violin leads the charge of all the players, like a Star Wars snowspeeder wrapping a cable around a walker on Hoth, circling faster and faster until the song plummets to a conclusion. Yeah, we just made a Star Wars reference about a Celtic song. How we roll, this is.

The War on Drugs — Pagan Place (Waterboys cover)

The War on Drugs is an Americana band from Philly that started as a collaboration between lead singer Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile, before the latter went solo. Here they do a reverent cover of “A Pagan Place” from New York’s Bowery Ballroom last year. The piano really makes the song, recalling the Waterboys original, and what a welcome sound it is. Granduciel’s yelp at the end of the song stamps the wax on this Waterboys classic like a Mike Scott seal of approval.

Glen Hansard and Mic Christopher — The Whole of the Moon (Waterboys cover)

One of the Waterboys’ most well-known songs, “The Whole of the Moon” has been covered quite a bit over the years (most recently sung by Mandy Moore and ridiculously ruined by overproduction). But if you want a cover that gets to the heart of the song, with the rawness and spirit that Mike Scott showed in the original, look no farther than Glen Hansard and Mic Christopher’s cover, recorded over a decade ago. Hansard met Christopher on the streets of Dublin when they both were buskers and they soon forged a deep friendship, continuing to play together even after Hansard achieved some musical success.

This version of “Whole of the Moon” was taken from a show in Vienna in 2001. As a cover, it’s totally imperfect — and that’s why it’s wonderful. It’s a spotty audience recording from the days before smartphones. Christopher starts to re-sing a verse at one point and Hansard has to steer him back. They end with a devil-may-care falsetto of la-la-las, with the audience laughing nervously. No overdubs here, no auto-tuning, no second takes — just two guys with guitars singing their hearts out, neither of them knowing that only one of them would be alive a couple of months later.

For there’s a tragic ending. Christopher did live his dream, opening for the Waterboys very soon after the cover we’ve posted here. But not far into the tour, he stumbled and fell down some stairs, hitting his head and going into a coma. He died 11 days later at the age of 32.

This is a bittersweet cover, of unconditional joy and heart-wrenching sadness. Two guys bravely ran across a tight wire over Vienna in the night, and one stretched for the stars and fell. Too high, too far, too soon.

Fisherman’s Box, a 7-CD expanded version of Fisherman’s Blues with 85 unreleased tracks, arrives on October 14. Keep tabs at

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  One Response to “In the Spotlight: The Waterboys”

Comments (1)
  1. That TWOTM cover was beautiful – thank you!

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