POGUES, MINUS MACGOWAN, STILL HAVE THEIR BARK AND BITE
It was the only mention of MacGowan -- the Pogues in-absentia lead singer- songwriter -- but it was apropos, as many of the songs were MacGowan's hard-drinking, hell-raising misadventures. MacGowan is off this tour for ''health'' reasons. So, we should answer the obvious first: Is there life after Shane, or with Shane on the shelf?
The answer, in concert, is a qualified yes. The Pogues were a bit ragged in places (nothing new here) and Strummer, though a born frontman and more focused than MacGowan ever was, sometimes seemed tentative in his role, but that's understandable. It was just their third gig and Strummer is a new face in a veteran band -- also, a face with marquee value. Hesitant though he was at times, Strummer could jump in with passion, putting the requisite bark and bite into MacGowan's tales from the dark side.
Strummer, however, didn't have to carry the whole load. In recent years, the Pogues have spread vocal and songwriting chores around. Saturday, Philip Chevron, mandolinist Terry Woods, drummer Andrew Ranken and tin whistle player Spider Stacy took turns at the mike. Chevron's ''Thousands Are Sailing'' was, in fact, the highlight of the night.
The Pogues' game plan remains the same: Celtic folk mixed with harsh, declamatory punk sentiments. Songs such as ''Sayonara,'' ''Cotton Fields,'' ''The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn'' and ''The Sunny Side of the Street'' made that clear. Strummer's ''London Calling'' and ''I Fought the Law'' fit right in. The Pogues' primary idea is to fashion an intricate acoustic weave -- accordion, banjo, mandolin, tin whistle -- and play, often enough, with punk-rock velocity. Even without their shipwrecked captain, the Pogues navigate a rude, rough, endearing course -- one that's uplifting, but cut with a subtext of struggle, squalor and strife.
''I'm not being disrespectful,'' said Stacy backstage, after it was over, ''but Shane's lack of interest has been so apparent that we had to make it in spite of him. Joe has just grabbed it by the throat. He's really committed. And it's great not to have to worry about covering for somebody. . . . Shane's trying to get himself healthy. I hope he does.''
There was a treat for Saturday's early birds: A sterling set by the opening duo, Storm, singer-multi-instrumentalist James McNally and guitarist-multi- instrumentalist Tommy McManamon. Like the Pogues, they bend traditional Celtic sounds into weird and wonderful rock shapes, both intense and atmospheric.
Copyright 1991, The Boston Globe
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