A good portion of the audience choose to nurse drinks and chat in the carpet-walled corridors outside the auditorium rather than watch Oh Mercy’s set, and it does seem an incongruous location for their show. To a half-full room a painfully sibilant mix does not help Alex Gow’s coruscating take on folk rock. Despite inventive harmonies and imaginative songwriting, the audience seems largely unmoved. Gow’s deadpan humour is a winning addition, and songs like Making Me Pay show an acerbic wit at work. Closing with a raucous take on Leonard Cohen’s Memories does however win the audience round and they earn their warm applause.
Playing their first Australian show, Waterboys ringleader Mike Scott wastes no time in cranking the volume and letting the beautifully phrased vitriol fly. Opening with Don’t Bang the Drum, Scott is held, hacking at his guitar in a warm spotlight while the rest of the band lingers in cold blue. He appears ageless in a broad black hat, large glasses, high-collared coat, framed by copious flowing hair. The audience seems physically restrained by the plush chairs and submits to rhythmic nodding despite musical urgings to turn the theatre into an Irish pub. Admitting he’s spent a week in Melbourne and become an addict of Miss Phryne Fisher mysteries, Scott soon makes true on his promise to play ‘songs from all eras of the Waterboys’; When Ye Go Away, flows into their first ever single, the honky-tonk stomp of A Girl Called Johnny.
Scott’s has never shied away from spiritualism, so his recent album interpreting the poems of W.B. Yeats wasn’t a huge surprise. Highlights of this come as the stunning White Birds, featuring further violin pyrotechnics from long-time Waterboy Steve Wickham, and Scott’s chilling reading of The Second Coming while wearing a mask of three faces won’t leave the memory soon: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’ he shouts, slamming shut a book and briefly leaving the stage.
Returning, the five-piece tear through The Thrill is Gone, the redemptive riposte of She Tried to Hold Me and Raggle Taggle Gypsy, one of the few songs that escapes the ‘epic’ touch he usually brings. The Waterboys’ sound is that of folk music being ripped wide open and made huge. Natural highlights of this are their biggest hits The Whole of the Moon, a song you can only breathe ‘wow!’ at after hearing, set-closer The Pan Within and their oddly perfect encore of Prince’s Purple Rain.
'I know what it's like here at the Hamer Hall,” says Scott to a now-rapt audience. “I do. They don't let you dance, you stand up and they get awful freaked out,” he grins before snapping into a fearsome Be My Enemy that elicits a dozen dancers into the aisles, and once-vigilant, now-shrugging ushers. Their second encore of Fisherman’s Blues and A Man Is in Love sees everyone standing, aisles full of dancers and a broadly grinning band. ‘See you all at Mario’s, Brunswick St, 2PM tomorrow!’ shouts Scott.