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Pop Music : Same Name, Different Game : The Waterboys' Mike Scott returns to rock 'n' roll after his Irish-accented acoustic group splinters

December 30, 1990|CHRIS WILLMAN | Chris Willman writes about pop music for The Times.

There were two bands called the Waterboys in 1990.

One was the seven-piece group that released "Room to Roam," a light, largely acoustic album full of reveries of Ireland and one of its lasses, with music based on or inspired by traditional Celtic strains played on fiddle, accordion, flute, whistle and the likes.

The other was the stripped-down four-piece rock 'n' roll band that played a hard-edged set of dark, electric, Dylan-goes-European riffs, augmented by a punchy brass section, at the Universal Amphitheatre earlier this month, with hardly a jig or reel in earshot.

What these two bands have in common, name aside, is primarily group leader Mike Scott. Personnel and style changes can be as expected yet sudden in the Waterboys as a rain shower in Scott's precious Ireland.

Two other band members, sax player Anthony Thistlethwaite and bassist Trevor Hutchinson, made the transition from the former lineup to the current, but the group is Scott's baby. Once fiddle player Steve Wickham quit the Celtic-flavored version of the band after the recording of the album, Scott took that as an omen to change course altogether and decided to lose the other traditional instrumentalists in the group as well.

"That's a very weird thing, touring a different show than the album that's just come out," admitted Scott backstage after the Universal show. "I wouldn't wish that on anybody. If the 'Room to Roam' lineup hadn't broken up, I would've been happy to tour that lineup. But when that band was over, I went for whatever would be good fun, which was rock 'n' roll and the brass section.

"When I started playing electric guitar in the band again, which was about four months ago, and all the traditional musicians left the band, that was a pretty clear demarcation point--folk on one side, and rock 'n' roll on the other.

"Yeah, it is the end of an era. And I don't know where our music's gonna go. I don't think the Waterboys and Celtic music are finished with each other at all. It's music that I've been listening to and playing for three years or so, and you can't just stop like that. But the high point . . . is probably past."

Though Scott says the traditional musicians of his adopted home, Ireland, are quite supportive of anyone taking it to a broader audience, not everyone has applauded his move into roots music. In a recent local concert, English singer John Wesley Harding parodied "Fisherman's Blues" and its "wish I was a fisherman" sentiments, suggesting that Scott should really trade places with a fisherman and give him a shot at being a big rock star. "He's not even Irish, you know," Harding added derisively about Scott, who is originally from Scotland. "He just wears a cardigan."

Wearing his omnipresent Dylan cap during the interview, Scott, 31, seemed reasonably gregarious for someone notoriously press-shy in recent years. He chuckled freely and mugged madly for a photographer.

Unlike most musicians, Scott prefers to talk to the press right after a show--he's still up from the performance, he explained, and any tension that might arise in the interview won't affect that night's concert. He spoke of the changes in the group nonchalantly, as if it were no big deal to spin into a 180-degree turn mid-race.

Certainly the new edition of the Waterboys brings Scott's creation closer to its early-'80s origins, when the group was more likely to be lumped in with U2 or Echo & the Bunnymen than the Chieftains. And a return to a purer rock sound may well restore the commercial luster that lost some of its shine during the two-album detour into Celtic sounds.

"I don't think the record company liked us going into Irish music," Scott confessed, "and I know when we were on the verge of recording 'Room to Roam,' there were a few comments from people here and there that it wasn't what we should be doing.

"But I can't pay any attention to that, can I? I'm not sitting there deciding, 'Well, we're going to do Irish music now.' I'm just doing what the road seems to be taking me on.

"In fact, I shouldn't even say it's Irish music, because it's not. Most of those tunes are Scottish. Scottish music is almost the same as Irish music; the Irish music is slightly better. Scottish music is jumpier, where an Irish tune will be very smooth and rolly."

If the differentiation seems important to Scott, it may be because of his own divided loyalties: Though a Scottish native, Scott has been known to wax rhapsodic in song as well as conversation about the healing qualities of Ireland since his move there several years ago. "Scotland is my dreaming head / Ireland is my heart," he sings in the latest album's "Islandman."

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