Live Reivew: Pogues at Stubb’s
The fact that Pogues singer Shane MacGowan is still alive is one of the stranger realities of 21st century pop music.
Much in the way that people of my parents’ generation thought that Joe Cocker wouldn’t get out of the ’70s alive (and yet he thrives), many of us thought that MacGowan’s long-suffering liver would have said, “Right; enough of this” and ejected itself out of his toothless body a long time ago.
Yet there he was, Wednesday night at Stubb’s, 20 years after everyone thought he was a goner, 18 years after he was fired for erratic behavior, the classic Pogues line-up with him, walking out to the Clash’s “Straight to Hell.” (Clash singer Joe Strummer replaced MacGowan in the Pogues for a time in the early ’90s. Strummer died in 2002 of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect. He’s gone, MacGowan endures - it is to laugh.)
The band has reunited for some sort of tour since 2001, but this show was the first time they had been to Austin in 20 years.
Every kind of Pogues fan was in the crowd, from middle-age folks in sweaters to crusty punks to frat guys to people trying very hard to look like the just got off the boat from Dublin. Virtually everyone had a drink in his or her hand; most of those were cans of Guinness. Some fans weren’t born the last time the band was in town.
A few minutes into the show, one thing became clear: This was a profoundly damaged man up there singing, decades of boozing and drugging having taken a significant physical toll. The rest of the band looked liked your average 50-something musicians, MacGowan looked liked he had been cursed by a witch to look about 90. His on-stage banter was completely unintelligible.
Here’s the weird thing: He can still sing. It was remarkable to witness.
The first few songs (“Streams of Whiskey,” “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”) were very rough. Things did not look promising, even though the band was (mostly) sticking to tunes from their amazing first three albums (“Red Roses For Me,” Rum, Sodomy and the Lash” and “If I Should Fall….”).
Runs through “The Broad Majestic Shannon” and “Boys From the County Hell” did not fare much better. It was sad to see MacGowan up there, odd top-hat on, staggering around. The Pogues are God’s own bar band, and they were pros, gamely cranking through the songs.
But the epic “A Pair of Brown Eyes” was a revelation. As beers were lifted, MacGowan suddenly sounded like it was 1985 or 1990 or 2001 or 1840. It was one of the best arguments for singing-as-muscle-memory I’ve ever witnessed. “And a rovin, a rovin, a rovin I’ll go/For a pair of brown eyes,” everyone belted. Then took a belt.
Tin whistle player Spider Stacy sang his “Tuesday Morning,” a rather straight-forward rocker from when MacGowan was out of the band, and Philip Chevron warbled his deeply moving immigrant song “Thousands Are Sailing.” The brilliant “The Body of An American” suffered from some let’s-call-it-shaky timekeeping, mostly on MacGowan’s part, “The Old Main Drag” and “Dirty Old Town” sounded dirty and old. Just like MacGowan.
Good luck with the rest of your life man, clearly someone is watching out for you.
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