If there is one venue in the UK synonymous with “the Big Music”, as the Celtic alliance of rousing mid-80s breakout post-punk bands was known – from Big Country and Simple Minds to U2 – it’s Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom. So to witness the Irish Sea-straddling ensemble whose 1984 single gave the movement its name play at the hallowed spot again rates as no small pleasure.
“I had a misspent youth buying gallus clothes up The Barras,” says the Waterboys’ Edinburgh-born frontman and sole original member Mike Scott, employing the Scottish word for “daring” to describe the threads he picked up from the nearby flea market. Wearing an oversized black Stetson, black leather suit and polka-dot red scarf, his dress sense is no less adventurous today, at 60 years of age. Nor have his best songs lost any of their pluck and potency. Battering a brightly strung acoustic guitar while Dubliner sideman Steve Wickham scrapes a frayed riff up there among the most famous in folk-rock fuzz-fiddling – admittedly, this isn’t a crowded field – Scott leads his high-kicking way through a rendition of Fisherman’s Blues as energetic as any the band can ever have performed.
With sales figures nearer to In Tua Nua’s than U2’s, the Waterboys have never quite fulfilled their potential, but their first three albums remain classics of the genre. More recently Scott has worked as a soloist and the band have followed a more genre-flued muse. Songs from their latest, 13th album, Where the Action Is, span everything from punk paean London Mick to Dusty Springfield soul-pop pastiche Out of All This Blue.
The Waterboys’ breathless live show has somewhere along the way taken up an almost Meatloaf-ian dedication to the hammy theatrics of rock’n’roll. The northern-soul-fired A Girl Called Johnny re-spawns in double-time after a fake ending, and sees perma-dancing backing singers Zeenie Summers and Jess Kav twirl madly around the stage whacking tambourines. A lengthy showcase for the talents of “Brother” Paul Brown, the Waterboys’ American pianist and organist who, as Scott says, has “his soul in Memphis, but his ass in Nashville”, sees the silver-haired surfer get three frantic, fist-bashing runs at an epic Hammond solo.
All entertaining enough, but much like the gospelly, bluesy cover of Rod Stewart’s Sailing, later received with mixed enthusiasm, perhaps not quite what everyone came for. A run of early-period songs that includes Old England – a bitter epitaph for the attitudes of empire that can’t help but take on a renewed resonance in today’s political climate – and the starkly handsome We Will Not Be Lovers, captures the Waterboys’ music at its best: purposeful, sweeping, shrouded in a swirl of cosmic mysticism.
A top-five single on its reissue in 1991 and never far from a hits radio playlist since, The Whole of the Moon prickles hairs on the back of the neck, even if this particular version runs so long it feels as if the sun is probably up by the end. Joking that it’s now “school disco time”, Scott concludes with the gentle melodicism of How Long Will I Love You?, a song that, oddly enough, was covered with some success by Ellie Goulding in 2013. If perhaps not always for the most predictable of reasons, the Big Music stays big.