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An evening of passionate Irish music from the Waterboys

THE WATERBOYS

With T. F. Much.

Orpheum Theater, October 22.

By DEBBY LEVINSON

T HE WATERBOYS ARE NOT A pretty group. One concert-goer called mandolinist Anthony Thistlethwaite "the ugliest man in rock and roll." Looks aside, however, Ireland's Waterboys are one of the sharpest and most dynamic groups around today. They are also one of rock's most spiritual groups -- in a wholly secular sense of the word. An unmistakeable passion infuses their music, and their concerts are so uplifting as to approach a religious experience.

Much of the Waterboys' appeal stems from leader/guitarist Mike Scott's often bitter lyrics. Like Bob Dylan, he is more of a poet than a songwriter, and his imagery is sometimes brutal, sometimes beautiful, as in "When You Go Away":

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Your beauty is familiar

And your voice is like a key

It opens up my soul

And torches up a fire inside of me.

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Scott resembles Dylan in other ways, too; his primary instrument is an acoustic guitar, and his voice is definitely an acquired taste. It is nasal and sometimes harsh, but it lends vitality to his songs.

The bulk of Sunday night's performance -- the first of two sold-out shows, the other on Monday night -- was almost wholly acoustic, with members of the seven-piece band playing acoustic guitar, bass, violin, and accordion. There was also a heavy, but not surprising, emphasis on Irish instrumentation, with one Waterboy playing everything from bodhran to tin whistle to uileann pipes. The unusual instruments were put to good use on several traditional folk songs -- ancient Scottish tune "The Exile's Dream," one of Irish/Scottish origin called "The Raggle-Taggle Gypsy," and the delightful "Jimmy Hickey's Whirl," during which three couples waltzed between the band members. A Gibson electric guitar made only one appearance the entire evening in the surprising coda to an already-stunning "When You Go Away."

"When You Go Away" is one of the centerpieces of the Waterboys' most recent effort, Fisherman's Blues. Scott sang the simple phrase "I will cry when you go away" over the mournful accompaniment of Thistlethwaite's slide mandolin, and his cracked voice brought out the song's plaintiveness and sorrow. The sudden violence of the concert version's electric coda was cathartic, even rousing.

Strangely, the band shied away from its older, more popular songs in favor of newer and less well-known ones. "This is the Sea," "Church not Made with Hands," and "Be My Enemy" failed to make an appearance, but the relatively unavailable track "Higher Bound" did. There was a crackling "Medicine Bow" and a bluesy "Whole of the Moon," which saw Scott at the electric piano instead of his acoustic guitar. Of the Fisherman's Blues material, the title song and "Sweet Thing" (which contains Scott's husky interpretation of the Beatles' "Blackbird") were excellent.

"Excellent" is hardly a word that could be used to describe opening act T. F. Much. They sounded like an untutored version of Aztec Camera or Steely Dan, and to quote my companion, "They'd be good if they weren't so boring."