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Saturday 16 December 2017

Live Poets Society

Mike Scott's love of poetry was evident in the early days and it has not waned, says George Byrne

One of the most intriguing live albums of the 70s begins with Lou Reed approaching the mike and quoting from WB Yeats. "The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity," drawls the Brooklyn bard, before adding, "now you figure out where I am" and the band plough into the classic riff from Sweet Jane.

There's every chance that when Mike Scott and The Waterboys (who, lest we forget, are named after a lyric on Lou Reed's Berlin album) perform An Appointment with Mr Yeats at the Abbey Theatre those lines from The Second Coming will be heard again, although it's rather unlikely that they'll adopt the tone of the rest of Take No Prisoners, the live recording in question, where Reed spent less time singing than he did berating journalists, fellow musicians and audience members, memorably skewering one of the latter who shouted Patti Smith's name at him, with the put-down: "Fuck Radio Ethiopia man, I'm Radio Brooklyn."

Growing up in a literary household Mike Scott always brought a poetic sensibility to The Waterboys' music. This was particularly evident on their eponymous debut, A Pagan Place, and the breakthrough This is the Sea -- where amidst the soaring, skyscraping music one could pick out lyrical threads going back to William Blake and TS Eliot, while also discerning the influence of contemporary poet/songwriters such as Patti Smith and Dylan.

For a while The Waterboys were one of my favourite bands, making music which worked in a stadium setting but didn't stoop to the industrialised emoting of U2 or Simple Minds (who were effectively ruined as a band when Jim Kerr went for a walk with Bono the night before the Phoenix Park gig in 1983), but all that stopped when they took the disastrous step of moving to Ireland, immersing themselves in all things diddley-eye and, after spending a vast amount of money and studio time, emerged in 1988 with the substandard Fisherman's Blues.

It was bad enough for their record company that, having squandered a fortune discovering their 'new' sound, Scott & Co delivered an album which sounded like it could have been knocked together during the Holy Hour in the Béal Bocht. However, for those who'd been devotees of the band from the off, for them to supply a blueprint for every half-arsed busker for the next couple of decades was a complete betrayal of everything we'd loved about The Waterboys.

It was on Fisherman's Blues (which was followed by the even more insubstantial cod-trad of Room to Roam two years later) that Mike Scott first granted the record-buying public a taste of his WB Yeats obsession, with a decent enough instrumental backing to a reading of The Stolen Child.

Further Yeats references peppered Love and Death on the 1993 album Dream Harder, where the band again spent a shedload of record company money, this time Geffen's, to produce a rocked-up ragbag of mystical hippy drivel only redeemed by Glastonbury Song. While the Waterboys as a creative entity are effectively a thing of the past, one would trust that Scott, as is the case with John Cale and his treatments of Dylan Thomas's works, will conjure up suitable settings for the words of Ireland's greatest poet.

An Appointment with Mr Yeats, featuring Mike Scott, takes place in the Abbey Theatre for the next three nights

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