ROOM TO ROAM notes by Mike Scott
Room To Roam isn’t like other Waterboys records. It isn’t much like any other record; it is a world unto itself, the product of a unique line-up of musicians, made in an otherworldly location and atmosphere, and subject to a specific set of values.
The band was a seven-piece, featuring the four core Waterboys of the time: myself, Steve Wickham (fiddle), Anto Thistlethwaite (sax/mandolin) and Trevor Hutchinson (bass). We were joined by flautist Colin Blakey, Dublin drummer Noel Bridgeman and young box playing sensation Sharon Shannon.
Blakey had come into our orbit during the Fisherman’s Blues sessions and his gorgeous flute playing, most prominent on that album’s rendering of The Stolen Child, had become an integral part of our sound on tour. Bridgeman had also contributed to Fisherman’s Blues, and I wanted his gentle woody feel in the band full time. We’d got to know Sharon Shannon on the Galway music scene. At twenty she was a master player with an insatiable appetite for music and a will of iron. What’s more, her sound was the product solely of the world of traditional music. She played nothing but tunes: jigs, reels, strathspeys, polkas and hornpipes. I wanted her unique musical voice, and the tradition she represented, to be part of the band’s identity too.
When we took this version of The Waterboys on the road in Summer 1989 we quickly gelled, producing the warm rootsy sound I was looking for. And we gelled offstage too. Our tours became one long session as we played for fun on busses, trains, cars, vans and planes; in airports, hotel bars and bedrooms. And backstage, stopping long enough to do the actual show then jumping right back into the session. Sharon and Blakey brought huge tune repertoires with them, Wickham too, and we morphed into a travelling school of music, a club of roaming music writers, collectors and folklorists.
When the tour finished at the end of 1989 we convened at Spiddal House near Galway and installed a studio, just as we’d done for the final Fisherman’s Blues sessions a year before, and spent the next four months in residence at our mansion of music.
The album was produced and arranged in more democratic fashion than any other Waterboys record. I didn’t want the sole producer’s responsibility, so Barry Beckett, legendary Muscle Shoals man, worked with us for the first eight weeks, genially guiding and encouraging us. Colin Blakey arranged A Man Is In Love and it was his innovation to place the jig Calliope House as an expression of joy at the song’s end, and it was Steve Wickham’s idea to add a Dixieland band to Spring Comes To Spiddal. Throughout the album each musician developed his or her own parts, choosing which instrument to play on each song. Every band member consequently emerges on Room To Roam as a multi-instrumentalist.
The selection of material was different, too. As always I had a crop of new songs and these were automatically included but they were complemented by traditional tunes from our floating repertoire. Sometimes they merged, as in the segue of A Man Is In Love and Calliope House, or sometimes a song would be built around a tune: the music of Further Up, Further In was based on a Scottish strathspey from Sharon’s repertoire called Roche’s Favourite; The Wyndy Wyndy Road, on CD2, was a lyric added to another Scottish tune, The Hut On Staffin Island. Several tunes stood alone as tracks. Others snuck in unannounced, like the reel at the end of A Life Of Sundays. Thus the ‘tune collecting’ aspect of this line-up of the band contributed heavily to the content of the album.
Likewise, the spirit of the West of Ireland and its wild landscape breathes through every note of Room To Roam, and the sense of community we found in Spiddal village and Galway city is in the music too. The album is the product of a band deeply absorbed in and functioning within the Celtic culture and dreamtime. But interwoven with all this was a strong Beatles influence. This is where the inspiration for the psychedelic elements came from: backwards instruments, a lead guitar through a Leslie speaker here, a crowd of people laughing there, speeded up helium-toned backing vocals, etc. Most of the Pepperesque sound effects – ringing phone at the start of Islandman, seagulls and waves, car driving off at the end of The Wyndy Wyndy Road, the pub atmosphere before Room To Roam itself - were our own recordings, made round Spiddal or on field trips to Connemara and the Aran Isles by myself and assistant engineer Robbie Adams.
The blending of genres and styles is part of the Room To Roam sound. From the various members came a host of different influences and interests, and these were smelted together in a Celtic fire. Across its six minute span, A Life Of Sundays features rock’n’roll, blues (Noel Bridgeman’s ‘Same Thing’ vocal refrain in verse 3), soul (Anto’s baritone sax), African (congas and finger piano in verse 4), psychedelia (Blakey’s wild wah wah flute solo), punk or glam (the Johnny Thunders riff on which the guitar solo is based), Irish literature (a sample of Liam O’Flaherty reading from his 1931 book The Ecstacy Of Angus), and no-nonsense trad (the cheery Scottish reel at the close).
My singing is different on Room To Roam. My voice was tired from smoking and a heavy year of touring in 1989, and the rasp that can be heard on most records I’ve made is absent. But there are two other reasons. Firstly, the sonic context provided by the addition of Sharon’s accordion, Colin’s flute and Noel’s drums influenced me to sing in a less declamatory, more gentle fashion. And secondly, I found in the West of Ireland, with its folklore and unindustrialised landscape, a connection with the deep past; a sense of the continuous human adventure reaching from antiquity to the present day. From this perspective I imagined humanity as a single character advancing through unnumbered lives, events and ages, and this figure took a form in my imagination like that of the tarot card The Fool. I sought to give expression to this archetypal “Human Fool” through my voice and lyrics (for example In Search Of A Rose and Further Up, Further In and an unreleased song, Higherbound), and this changed the persona from which I sang.
Towards the end of the recordings I rediscovered the electric guitar, which had been absent from Waterboys recordings for four years. It crept into several songs and this unexpected development presaged the end of the Room To Roam band. Shortly after the album was completed, Anto and I wanted to toughen up the sound. This feeling wasn’t shared by Steve, and like a house of cards the band collapsed around us. As a result, Room To Roam was toured by a rump four-piece rock’n’roll band (myself, Anto, Trevor and a new drummer). The chapter was over, though the bonds of friendship and music that bound the seven Room To Roam band members endure to this day.
Anto Thistlethwaite now lives near Galway and plays bass and sax with the Saw Doctors, with whom he’s toured since the early ‘90s. He’s also made three solo albums. Trevor Hutchinson plays bass in his own successful Celtic band, Lunasa. Colin Blakey lives in the Lake District of England, teaches and composes Samba music, and releases albums with his band Orchestra Macaroon. Since leaving The Waterboys Noel Bridgeman has played and performed with Mary Black, Van Morrison, Jackson Browne and many others. Sharon Shannon is now the most successful traditional music artist in Ireland, and when the 1990 line-up of the Waterboys split it was she who carried on the Room To Roam experiment, fearlessly mixing folk, rock, country and other influences in her music. Steve Wickham rejoined The Waterboys in 2001 and he and I continue to explore our musical partnership and play the Fool in the concert halls and recording studios of the world.