Never has the poetry of WB Yeats, with all its incantatory charm and hieratic lyricism, been set to music with such punk swagger. Mike Scott has crafted a two-hour set that zigzags between genres, rock riffs followed by some blues, forays into big folk-sounds and the odd hectic strain of ceilidh energy.
And yet the medley somehow seems to form a well-crafted whole, each song an attempt to musically capture the inner life or central mood of the adapted poem. It is like one long shape-shifting, tonally-adventurous movement, with some massively inventive instrumental pieces between Scott’s vocals.
The wiry Waterboys frontman, joined amid the smoky gloaming of the Grand Opera House stage by an incredible nine-piece band including fiddler Steve Wickham, turns 'News for the Delphic Oracle' into a dream-heavy, slightly menacing waltz. Dissonant chords worthy of Bela Bartok crossed with notes of Kurt Weill and Tom Waits mix perfectly with the words, which tell of the great water sighing for love and nymphs copulating in the foam.
'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' is unexpectedly reworked as a blues jam, and the sound strangely fits the poem. It is, after all, a lyric about wanting solitude among bean rows and finding a remote glade where one can listen to the deep heart’s core. Scott delivers it brilliantly, his movements and voice straining to express the emotional pith of Yeats’s verse.
The rocked-up version of 'September 1913' is perhaps one of the most rousing pieces, causing many in the audience to finally lose control and abandon their seats (for a civilised mosh-pit under the footlights). Scott introduces the all-out heavy number as being especially relevant to these recessionary times, the lyrics launching a justified attack on the greasy tills and crass mercantilism shaping a soul-sapped culture.
Hearing Scott sing of Romantic Ireland being dead and gone while he struts about the stage Jagger-like, strumming his electric guitar like the strings might snap, should feel wrong and incongruous. And yet he makes it seem apt, punk-cool, an obvious rock-rebirth of immortal poetry.
Turning from the politically charged to the more far out mystic, occult-loving side of the poet, 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen' is kooky and freaky, the music suggestive of miasma, with Scott chanting some of Yeats’s most apocalyptic and unsettling lines (a Second Coming is at hand, while a 'rough beast' slouches towards Bethlehem). Scott reads from a large book that could be a magician's manual, while a hologram of the moon changes colour behind him.
Love poems like the 'Song of Wandering Aengus' and 'White Birds' are both given brasher, bolder sounds than their quiet, melancholic romanticism might immediately suggest. At times the riffs take over, drowning the lyrics rather than enhancing their effect. But this is a stompingly brilliant performance of the best music Mike Scott has produced since Fisherman's Blues, not a staid poetry reading in a dusty lecture hall.
Taking liberties to distort lines and sex-up the verse with strong melodies and bass may seem blasphemous to Yeatsian purists and uptight scholars, but Scott revels in being radical. For the most part, the music recharges Yeats, gives him noughties cachet and undercuts his hauteur to make him, almost, hip.