Brighton Centre, Wed 20th Nov
Though originally claiming to be singing in their own imaginary language, Sigur Ros later confessed they'd only ever meant that as a gag. In actuality they were simply scatting. Yet ideally, not only would they never have let on, they'd have convinced every country they visited that they were singing in a native language that wasn't theirs. That way, everyone can imagine you're singing something, which they can somehow intuit, without ever knowing for sure. After all, what is glossolalia but scatting given a religious context? Nonsense can be important stuff.
However, that alone would suggest their music is merely some kind of template, a big cavernous space onto which the listener can project whatever they want to imagine. Which admittedly would explain the keen-ness of marketing types to license their music for ads and soundtracks. (Requests which normally get turned down. Frontman Jonsi has spoken of his amusement at the resulting mini-industry in Sigur-Ros-alike compositions.)
That suggestion does perhaps have advantages over the other theory they get saddled with, that their soundscapes are a kind of sound painting of the landscapes of their native Iceland. And true enough, there's great footage out there of their touring their home island. Yet their music isn't cold and glacial, like Joy Division or Echo and the Bunnymen, it's richly melodic and quite often rhapsodic. The Bunnymen shot the cover art for their third album in Iceland. Whereas the projections which accompany this live show, while frequently of nature scenes, are rarely of anywhere particular. Many, in fact, veer towards the abstract. (A sense emphasised by the overlaying of the images on the band as they play.) Joy Division's sound, at least when it had been through Martin Hannett's production, was resolutely Modernist. Sigur Ros are more resonant of the previous Romantic era. It's the difference between Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff.
Ultimately, both theories are insufficient to the point of being diminishing. A more likely means to get somewhere would be to try and fit them together. They combine into a music reflecting both the enticing beauty and overwhelming scale of nature. Tracks show a vast dynamic range, rising to thumping crescendos utilising the full eleven-piece ensemble, then falling to the merest whisper from a single voice. It's nature to simultaneously find yourself and lose yourself in.
… which, and you may well be ahead of me here, makes it ideal music to see live. Not because of the stage show. (Impressive though that is, filling the eye without distracting from the music.) Not because they improvise or add elements or do crazy stage dancing, because they don't much. The truth is something much more simple. It's perfect music to experience collectively, in a big space full of people, forests of hands flying up as one. I normally steadfastly avoid the elephantine carbuncle that is the Brighton Centre. When a gig there can still feel involving, that's the sign of a band that's on to something.
It also felt right to see them on a dark Winter's evening. For the band look on the bright side in an almost literal sense. While stage shows by necessity involve lighting in some form, this seemed unusually based around the concept. Old-fashioned light bulbs (the ones that go off over people's heads in cartoons) sat on stands adorning the stage, emitting a warm orange glow, as if Edison had gone in for forestry.
Perhaps the actual moment of truth about all that 'sound-of-Iceland' schtick isn't what you see there but the proportion of time where you can't. For their homeland infamously falls into near-complete darkness in the depths of Winter. Perhaps the perfect night to see them would have been a couple of weeks later, on the Winter Solstice itself. Certainly it started to feel like a modernisation of some ancient ritual, nourishing the light in the dark like it's performing our magic which will see it grow again. (I was probably getting carried away by that point.) In choosing a name for his non-existent imaginary language, Jonsi hit upon Hopelandic. And indeed it all seems less the sound of mighty grinding glaciers than of flickering hope.
Despite the appeal of all that dynamic range, I think I took most to the more subdued and serene tone of the encore. It may have been that we needed to the bigger, more attention-grabbing stuff to pull us in, but once we were there the band had less need to address us and could simply speak.
From Brighton (unfortunately cutting off a bit abruptly)...
...and from Brixton, earlier in the year...
And, as if all that wasn't enough, check out the “evolving” video to the track 'Stomur' from the band's website, made from ever-changing footage supplied by fans – some live footage, some everyday diary stuff.
From Iceland to... Ireland. (We don't just throw this show together, you know.)
De Le Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sat 14th Dec
This tour was announced as a celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Waterboys' most popular album, 'Fisherman's Blues.' But as Mike Scott (singer and sole constant in an ever-changing line-up) soon tells us it's actually the five-week anniversary of 'Fisherman's Box', a new collection of out-takes.
There is of course far too much of this sort of thing nowadays. Where every bump into the mike gets a retrospective release. Where editing down to get the good stuff has suddenly become a bad idea. Where our culture is so oriented around perpetual consumption we lap it all up regardless. Those CDs you buy because of all the extra material, even though you had the original LP, how often do you actually play those extra tracks? This box set, for example, runs across seven discs.
Well, most of the time that's true. But then Mike Scott's music with the Waterboys has never been constrained by such norms. He'd promised “we won't be playing the original Fisherman's Blues album in order or anything tame like that. That's not the Waterboys' style.” A full third of the set must have been taken up by these rediscovered songs. So rather than this being a retrospective affair, the night was instead filled with classic songs you'd simply never heard before. I came out feeling that 'Fisherman's Box' must be the most essential box set since 'The Can Tapes.'
Scott was always a prodigiously prolific songwriter who had the greatest difficulty in fitting his compositions into the then-constrains of two sides of vinyl. (See for example me raving about the awesomeness of 'Beverley Penn', effectively thrown away at the time.) But the trip to Ireland which launched the album seemed to spike his output still further. He'd originally intended to visit new band member Steve Wickham in Dublin for a week or two. As he later commented “100 songs and 2 years later" the album was ready for release. Apparently, he still had trouble editing things down to the seven CD limit!
While Steve (Wick) Wickham's fiddle playing had accompanied Scott on the recent 'Appointment With Mr Yeats' tour, about eighteen months ago, this gig reunites the dream team line-up by bringing in Anthony (Anto) Thistlethwaite on sax and mandolin. A Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman... it may sound like the start of a joke to some – but for me it was a very good reason to take the trek to Bexhill.
As the launched into their Patti Smith tribute 'A Girl Called Johnny', in the venue where last I saw Smith herself, it felt like a baton being passed. I'd written of that night “there’s nothing you could possibly compare Patti Smith gigs to except each other.” Yet, while there must be few music-makers in the world of Smith's calibre, Scott is surely one of them.
'Fisherman's Blues' is of course famous for marking the point where the band (to quote Smith) “plugged into traditional music.” And notably, earlier songs tended to go through a kind of 'Fisherman's Blues' filter, such as the stripped-down three-piece version of the once-epic 'Don't Bang the Drum.' As the place names above might suggest, this mostly meant Irish tradition. Yet Scott also spoke warmly of the band's then interest in Americana, even temporarily relocating to California to be produced by the larger-than-life Bob Johnston. (One full CD from the set is apparently dedicated to this period.) They even play a Ray Charles and a Hank Williams cover. I became quite excited by this discovery, before recalling the original album had a track asking 'Has Anyone Here Seen Hank?'
All of which said, I would have to say I find some guilty of printing the legend. For example David Simpson's Guardian piece makes it appear Scott had some sort of Damascene conversion. Personally, I consider their previous album, 'This is the Sea' to be their finest. But even those who disagree would be hard pressed to describe it as a standard Eighties rock album, sharing stadium space with Simple Minds.
Simpson focuses on the track 'Fisherman's Blues' as if it was Scott's version of 'Solsbury Hill', an abrupt and deliberate volte face in musical style, a bold statement of intent. But, especially in retrospect, you can see how much of an interchange there was. Wickham had already played on the track 'The Pan Within' and the very same month (March '85) they recorded their first cover of Van Morrison's 'Sweet Thing'. 'Billy Sparks', described by Scott as “a ragggle-taggle folk romp” dated from still further back, Nov '82. (Though admittedly it's not one of their best songs.)
The references in the track to being “loosened from the bonds that held me fast” may well be about slipping music biz expectations, for it's an otherwise uncommon image from Scott. But the line he cites as marking the decisive break is “far away from dry land and its bitter memories." When the previous album was called 'This is the Sea'?!? (And in fact 'Fisherman's Blues' is the most old-style track on its album.)
Yet if the shift from the 'big music' of London to the traditions of Ireland was organic rather than calculated, it was still a smart one. 'This is the Sea' was released in '85 and Fisherman's Blues' in '88. It was after punk's Year Zero rhetoric and post-punk's futurist experimentation, where every release came on like a Modernist manifesto. By that point music had changed direction and come to re-water it's own roots. 'Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?' had become a pertinent cry once more. (Dexy's Midnight Runners had already taken the same turn into Celtic folk, albeit more cartoonishly, in '82.)
Plus, the 'big music' sound of the band's earlier albums... it was great, but big music can only get so big before it becomes a Jenga tower. There's only so much up up there. A sideways step was what was required, and Ireland provided the place to step into.
More widely, by the late eighties Thatcherism was consolidating and counter-culture seemed on the wane. (Several commentators have connected Scott's departure to Ireland with his song 'Old England', a diatribe against the ravages of her ruinous policies.) Post-punk had been based around the utopian/dystopian dialectic of science fiction, but by '88 the future no longer seemed ours. A weird switch occurred, as if the monetarists were now the modernists and we'd become the conservatives, the custodians of some cherished tradition. As in the words of the 'Likely Lads' theme tune, the only thing we had to look forward to was the past. Certainly during that era I mentally divided music into stuff with a history, which came from some longstanding tradition, from the cappuccino-less froth that was flavour of the month.
Well, the past is a nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there. A Scotsman, an Englishman and and Irishman – that's not the same recipe as three Irishmen. Despite Simpson, Scott never “walked away from rock music”, but took what he wanted with him. It was the marriage of his tradition, of teenage playing in punk bands, with Irish tradition which produced the flock of beautiful children. The successor album, 'Room to Roam', where they did abandon rock music in imitation of Irish tradition, was notably less successful. What the band needed then was another sideways step... 'Fisherman's Blues' was a moment in a band's musical history, not a magic escape button.
But of course they didn't get trapped in the past forever. The band proved last year there's more life left in them, that when they raid their back catalogue it's for something extra, not a consolation prize for the lack of something new. Scott chose the name to suggest something ever-fluid, ever-changing. It looks like he's sticking to that.
The classic 'We Will Not Be Lovers.' I love the opening section with Scott, Anto and Wick grouped together...
...and the band and audience singing happy birthday to Scott, who turned fifty-five that very day. (My voice is in there somewhere. Thankfully inaudible.)
Recognise that backdrop? I didn't till the very end, when they reassembled themselves into the cover of 'Fisherman's Blues' (albeit with a couple of stand-ins). Which does serve to sum up the album quite well. The very fact they go to such effort emphasises what a classic it is. The only other cover I can remember having been reassembled in such a way is 'Sgt. Pepper'. But 'Pepper's cover is so composed, a statement that popular music had become something important. Whereas this is as casual as it is classic, a quick line-up of the musicians, as if done hastily between takes. And the fact that it is a line-up, in old-time black-and-white even, makes it feel traditional – as if from before the days cameras were quick enough to snapshot moments. As if they were itinerant players, showing up at the mansion house to play the wedding dance. And indeed, the album is all those things...