The Waterboys and Yeats give us a chance to let music make poetry a world we could live in again.
Nearly a hundred years ago the writer T.S. Eliot spoke of the poet William Butler Yeats as “one of those whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them.” Yeats' poems were lyrical and epic at times, drawing from Irish mythology and the natural landscape of his Sligo home in his early work, moving to politics and the troubles of the man-made world in his later work. In 1923, he became the first Irishman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize (Literature). He's a national treasure and a literary demi-god. What could possess a modern artist to reawaken that era-specific consciousness in 2013, the age of environmental apocalypse, sustained debates about twerking, and a “punk is dead” mentality about poetry?
“I always liked Yeats' poetry, I like what he writes about, but it was the language. It looked to me like song lyrics, and they were there for the taking, really,” says Mike Scott about how he came to conceive of, what is essentially a literary cover album, The Waterboys' new record An Appointment with Mr. Yeats. In Scott's hands, 12 of Yeats' poems are put to music, and arranged both on the record and on the stage to traverse the landscape of the poet's imagination, from faery to romance to warfare and back again.
The Waterboys have been around since the early '80s, a rotating cast of Scottish, Irish, and British folk rock musicians, with Scott as the permanent songwriter. Their music has that sweeping anthemic sound that brings together the percussion and volume of rock music with the pitch and sway of traditional Celtic string instruments to produce that breathless, gives-you-goosebumps sound. See “Fisherman's Blues,” a song that even at the 46th listen can transport you to the center of a feeling and hold you transfixed until it's over. When you might hit play again.
“Since 1991, I had conceived the album first as a stage show,” says Scott. “That it would be a night of Yeats' poems set to music. That it would be a multi-artist extravaganza, with me organizing all kinds of Irish and British and perhaps American singers. But that would be very awkward to organize, and I had other things to do, like write my own songs and make my own records.” When The Waterboys' fiddle player and Sligo resident Steve Wickham played a show at the Yeats Summer School, where he organized for a poet to read the verses along his playing of The Waterboys' version of “The Stolen Child.” Scott was so inspired by Wickham's telling of the experience that he had a burst of creativity and within a few weeks had 12 new adaptations of Yeats' poems. He quickly realized that the door had swung open for him to put together this show he'd always imagined, and so he went ahead and finished an album's worth of songs. Scott Flipped through every single poem Yeats had ever written, waiting to hear music in his head with each one, until he had enough for a two-hour stage performance, which opened at the Abbey Theater in Dublin (Yeats' own theater) in 2010 to a standing ovation.
That same show comes to New Orleans on Tuesday at the Civic Theatre, and there's nothing “high-brow” about these adaptations. “When you write, or when you read a certain book, you enter the world of that book, it's like entering an atmosphere,” says Scott. “For me, the Yeats project was always like that, entering a special rarefied atmosphere, colored by (his) words, a very creative sense of potency.” Scott has tapped in to what is universal and timeless about Yeats' work, and the songs on this record speak to the “consciousness of an age,” any age really, that can still be affected by the rhythm and emotion of well-placed words, beautiful sonic landscapes, and a good rock show.