My uncle Tom has enigmatic musical taste. He's an avid golfer and a professional financial planner, an Irish, Sopranos-loving, Jersey guy, so as a kid it was always weird to find, like, Cocteau Twins and New Order in his CD rack. I remember him driving me and one of his buddies, Chris, to a golf tournament, putting a Waterboys CD on in his Wagoneer (probably "The Best of"). Chris signaled approval and told me that "This, this is music"--implication being that the Bouncing Souls or whatever I was Discman-ing at the time was not. I was eyeball deep in my "punk rock; adults' taste is inherently terrible" phase, but I could still feel the tug of the Waterboys' expansive, folk-rooted sound.
I couldn't get into it, though. The Waterboys catalog is famously varied, and I didn't have the patience to sort the synthy, 80s stuff from the mandolin and violin pub-session stuff, let alone evaluate either. A few years later, I discovered Elliott Smith, whose music made up most of the Good Will Hunting OST. The Waterboys' Fisherman's Blues was one of the few non-Smith tracks on that album, and it resonated with me--at that time I was reading a lot of Yeats and was self-identifying a little with the Pogues. In London, I spent some time pounding cans of VB at an Australian expat bar where everyone sang along to Whole of the Moon, Mike Scott's tribute to C.S. Lewis. So I backed into liking the Waterboys.
I'm not sure what led Ted Leo to Fisherman's Blues, but as he alluded to before he pulled it from his DEEP bag of thoughtful covers at his solo show in DC last Saturday, it falls in line with his "Celtic emo" type material. At its root is a love song, a hymn to the possibility of living an honest life with the one you love. Maybe a little condescending to fishermen and engine drivers, but surely something most of us wish for at one time or another. Ditching the bonds of the cubicle and the chains of, uh, chain restaurants for some manual labor and the love of a good woman is the basic premise of Office Space, right?
Ted plays it solo on electric guitar live, adding some flourishes and slightly different phrasing to the chorus (the version linked below is a little less electrified). He does Mike Scott's barbaric yawp well, and I'm not ashamed to say I tried my hand at it myself on Saturday. It's a great song that could be a traditional, and may well become one.