Pogues still standing (sort of)
With famously drunk lead singer Shane MacGowan, it's a near miracle that Irish folk-punk band the Pogues have gotten through any of the past three St. Patrick's Day tours of the United States. This year the band inexplicably made it to New York City to play a two night pre-St. Patrick's Day residency at the Roseland Ballroom that began last Friday.
The Pogues are as much a part of St. Patrick's Day as green beer and corned beef. The band was formed in London in the early 1980s and over time has come to include no fewer than eight members: lead singer MacGowan, whistle player Spider Stacy, accordionist James Fearnley, guitarist/ banjo player Jem Finer, drummer Andrew Ranken, guitarist Phil Chevron, mandolin player Terry Woods and bassist Darryl Hunt.
Don't let the antiquated instruments fool you- they were and still are firmly grounded in a punk sound and attitude. Before the band disintegrated in 1996 they had formed a solid reputation as the elder statesmen of the Irish punk-folk tradition, and their reformation four years ago has made them the gold standard.
Franz Nicolay, keyboardist of the Hold Steady (who will be playing in Albany on the 31st), opened the show. In the introduction to "Dead Soldiers" he said that he "achieved every boys dream" when he ran away to the circus, and with his curled mustache and accordion prowess it's almost believable. Nicolay held his own in front of the rowdy and drunken crowd, even when one fan threw ice from a drink in his face. "That was harsh," he said, and promptly launched into a new song. Musically, Nicolay was the perfect opening act. Every song in his set was energetic and romantic. His sound was a mash of punk, rock and folk- like the Pogues without the Irish leanings.
After Nicolay left the stage the crowd lapsed into uneasy chatter. Then, suddenly, the massive PA system began to play the first thumping beats of the Clash's "Straight to Hell". In the early 1990's, after MacGowan was booted from for his drunkenness, former Clash singer Joe Strummer stepped in to fill the void. Since his death the band has used the song to remember their friend and signal the beginning of a show.
The band took the stage slowly. Finally, MacGowan lumbered on, brandishing a lit cigarette in defiance of smoking bans. MacGowan is still toothless and visibly drunk, as he has been for the past 25 years. Despite this, he appeared determined to perform, lumbering towards the microphone like Frankenstein's monster. He mumbled something and launched into the classic "Streams of Whiskey". MacGowan's voice could never be described as "good," but despite years of self-abuse his growly voice is still emotional and moving.
In two hours the band launched breathlessly through twenty-four songs. Most were classics like "If I Should Fall from Grace with God" and "Body of an American," with a few largely ignored songs including "Cotton Fields" and the instrumental "Metropolis". The band has not released a new studio album in 15 years and has no plans to do so. They draw their appeal from other sources. The feeling of thousands of bodies mashing together good naturedly, the sound of a favorite song being played louder and faster than the original, and watching Fearnley jump and dive around the stage (by the end of the show he ripped out the knees of his pants)- that's why the Pogues still pack every stop on their yearly tour.
MacGowan left the stage a handful of times, ceding vocal duties to other band members. Stacy proved more than capable on "Tuesday Morning". Chevron's turn at singing the immigration anthem "Thousands are sailing" was met with cheers from the audience. This is the guitarist's second tour since recovering from throat cancer.
MacGowan did not have much to say during the show. At one point he called the audience "weirdos' and made sure they knew the lilting, beautiful rendition of "Rainy Night in Soho" was about "Soho London, not Soho New York." Yet he dialed his drunken clownishness up to 11 by wrapping the microphone chord around his neck during an encore and spitting a mouthful of wine towards the audience during "Bottle of Smoke". It was instances like this, coupled with the fact that he never missed a word, that makes you think the he might have it together more than anyone gives him credit for.
After two encores the set ended with "Fiesta". MacGowan howled as enthusiastically as he did during his prime. As they do every year, MacGowan and Stacy brandished tin trays that they hit themselves in the head with to echo the song's percussion.
As the last song ended both the band and the audience staggered away, exhausted. The band quickly exited the stage while the audience trudged off through piles of beer cups. "I can't wait for next year," one middle-aged concertgoer slurred. The band and their audience have an unspoken pact. As long as Shane is still standing the band will be there. The audience will be there, too, not expecting anything new, but for the Pogues own brand of wild, drunken sonic comfort food.
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