Pogues return in their scruffy splendor
The Pogues stumble, the Pogues fall, the Pogues still possess about as much collective showmanship as might a Boston Police Department lineup of low-level miscreants collared during a weekend sweep. And, that's no dis - that's part of the charm. The Pogues have no polish. When they began to introduce "Living in a World Without Her," early in their 95-minute set at Avalon Friday night, singer Spider Stacy and banjo player Jem Finer both yammered into microphones, neither giving ground nor caring about the informational clash.
But the news, for the fans, is that the Pogues live. Or, if you will, the Pogues live again.
True, the pioneering, London Celtic-punk band formed in the mid-'80s doesn't feature co-founder-singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan - he got his walking papers for too much inebriation and instability a few years ago. It doesn't include ex-Clash singer Joe Strummer, who filled in for MacGowan on an earlier tour.
What we have, and what entertained about 1,000 folks at Avalon, is the Stacy-led Pogues, on their second, post-Shane US go-'round. With expectations lowered even among the faithful, the brand-name septet tries to both carry on in the tradition of MacGowan and reinvent itself without its scabrous main muse. Treacherous turf.
The Pogues roam it well. Stacy - who used to be primarily a tin-whistle player and MacGowan's foil - has stepped comfortably into the lead singer role. He's no virtuoso (neither was MacGowan) and he doesn't quite have MacGowan's bark and bite (and he didn't write the tunes), but he has the attitude. Diffidence, anger and romance - all bottled up and spewed out at the appropriate times.
The Pogues are more of a democracy these days - even as MacGowan's ghost makes itself most enjoyably noisy at times. What else can they do? It was there in "The Boys From County Hell" - a tale of booze-fueled camaraderie and boastful debauchery - and "Sally Maclennane," with its slurry salutations and rat-a-tat-tat bursts from drummer Andrew Ranken. Stacy set the stage with "Sunny Side of the Street" and hit deeply with the doom-ridden "Turkish Song of the Damned." Keep in mind, Stacy's relative stability throughout the show is another plus, especially when one considers MacGowan's scattershot salvos.
The first part of the set did seem almost staid, the Pogues still trying to find their reckless-cum-righteous moorings. But with "Tuesday Morning," a lovely, almost-mawkish, post-MacGowan tune, they kicked it up gently, and the band began to course through its growl 'n' lilt signature sound. They hit again with "Sitting on Top of the World" and Dylan's "When the Ship Comes In." Old fave "Dirty Old Town" was a raving, bittersweet sing-along, with Stacy singing "I'll cut you down like an old dead tree" and the crowd joining the "Dirty old town!" refrain, celebrating love in all the wrong places.
Bassist Darryl Hunt has penned the best recent Pogues tune, the exquisitely sweet "Love You Till the End." A standout on their recent "Pogue Mahone" CD, it was played as an encore. It's a song of unrequited love and unabashed romance. Then there was "Hell's Ditch" and "Fiesta," a riotous, stop-and-start Spanish romp, where a sax burst in and all seemed right with the world. You want more?
Hamell on Trial, the opening solo acoustic act, did the frenetic, feverish punk rock thing. Bold and brash, but maybe a novelty.
Copyright 1996 Globe Newspaper Company, The Boston Globe
Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.