Published September 20. 2013 4:00AM
The Great God Pan is alive and William Butler Yeats is dead, and never the twain shall meet.
Mike Scott, the e'er-searching melodic genius behind the Waterboys, might actually BE the Great God Pan. And who does he have to thank for that? Why, W.B. Yeats!
Here's how it all works.
As the Waterboys, associated with various bases in Scotland, Ireland and Britain, settle into their first U.S. tour in six years, they're doing so behind their 10th studio album. It's a conceptual labor of love called "An Appointment with Mr. Yeats" on which Scott set 14 of the poet's works to music.
"I love and have been captivated by Yeats' poetry," Scott says by phone a week before the band's performance Saturday in New Haven's Shubert Theater. "But it's also true that one of the reasons I chose Yeats for this project was that a lot of his poems lend themselves almost perfectly to song lyrics."
The tunes were part of a larger collection of Yeats/Scott tunes - 20 in all - that date all the way back to 1988's "Fisherman's Blues" and the first "collaborative" tune, "The Stolen Child."
On the band's 1993 "Dream Harder" record, Scott tried again, putting "Love and Death" to music.
"I relate very much to Yeats," Scott says, "and the poems can be very different and lead you in different ways."
That sort of creative impulse is perfect for the Waterboys, whose adventurous creative path - called by Scott "The Big Music" - has ranged from the anthemic rock of their early years to stunning twists on Scottish/Irish folk and country traditions.
All of these experiments are instantly identifiable as Waterboys music; Scott's voice and songwriting, as well as the DNA-establishing fiddle of Steve Wickham, are very distinctive. What's particularly fun is how much all of the stylistic forms come into play on "An Appointment with Mr. Yeats."
"The album does seem to include all of our musical periods," Scott says. "Songs like 'The Hosting of the Shee' have that early rock sound, and 'White Birds' has something of 'Fisherman's Blues' to it. But I let the poems take me where they'd go. Maybe a single line suggests a melody or a mood, and I'd follow that."
One such poem is Yeats' "News for the Delphic Oracle," which became the third track on the new album and sports soaring rock melodies over a galloping fiddle, all contrasting with a recurring, haunted carousel bridge - classic Waterboys juxtapositions. It's maybe the album's most arresting song.
Perhaps most interestingly, the poem originally bewitched Scott long ago when he was a schoolboy in Edinburgh because of its evocative third-verse invocation to Pan, the nature-loving, goat-footed god of earth and nature.
As Scott became a musician and founded the Waterboys, Pan's persona and philosophy became a recurring inspiration for some of the band's best-loved songs, including "The Return of Pan," "The Pan Within" and the title cut from the "A Pagan Place" album.
As he wrote in his autobiography, "Adventures of a Waterboy," "Pan! How much of my journeying, and even of rock 'n' roll itself, was nothing more than a search for the spirit of Pan, for the combination of sacredness, wildness and freedom?"
Signature lines from "The Return of Pan" are "He's like a man you'd meet anyplace / Until you recognize that ancient face / The great god Pan is alive."
When asked if he thought he'd recognize "that ancient face," Scott says, "Oh, yes, I've seen that face." He describes a few days in the late '80s spent on the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland. The isles are rich in Celtic lore and spirit, and Scott explains, "Life is very different there in profound ways. Somehow, my experience brought forward something deep inside me, something central, and it was the face of Pan. I don't think my experience was unique; I think Pan is within all of us. The spark of the Divine."
All things spiritual have been an ongoing part of Scott's personal and creative growth, including a two-year period in the mid-'90s when he lived at the holistic Findhorn spiritual community in Scotland.
While he adheres to no particular religion or theology, Scott says he's learned a great deal from his experiences - many of which ultimately propelled him to recognize the validity of a single project dedicated to putting music to Yeats' poetry. Now, after 20 years, "An Appointment with Mr. Yeats" is done and the band is taking the work on the road.
"The album was something I'd long wanted to do; I had to learn to trust my intuition," Scott says. "One of the most important things I learned at Findhorn was to pay attention to a little prompt in my heart - a sort of divine dissatisfaction when I wasn't doing what I was supposed to do. I'd get this itch - 'Keep fighting, mate!' - and I'm glad we finally did this."
Scott says the concert presentations feature seven or eight songs from "Yeats," some rarities and, of course, Waterboys favorites like "Whole of the Moon," "Don't Bang the Drum" and "A Girl Called Johnny."
Reaction to the Yeats material, Scott says, has been gratifying and educational. He says how an audience reacts to particular songs is revelatory.
"This has happened all through my life in music," he says, "particularly when we tried something radically different like 'Fisherman's Blues.' The crowd will respond to something I never expected. Go figure. I'm happy if that's what they like because it means the songs have a life of their own. That's something bigger than you anticipate going in and very rewarding."