Shane MacGowan back with sound and fury;
So it is in 1995 for Shane MacGowan, the former leader of the Pogues. MacGowan began a US tour Wednesday at Avalon, playing a 70-minute set before a near-sellout crowd with his backing sextet, the Popes. It was MacGowan's first US concert since the singer-songwriter's eviction from/evacuation of (depending upon whose story you believe) the groundbreaking London-based, Celtic/punk band he cofounded in the mid-1980s.
The vibe? Same as it ever was.
The performance? A return to form.
If, that is, you trip back to the Pogues' nascent years, before other world beats found their way into the band's sound. MacGowan's comeback set was Celtic/punk done the hard way: early Pogues songs like "The Boys From County Hell" ("Lend me 10 pounds and I'll buy you a drink") and "The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn" ("They took you up to midnight Mass and left you in the lurch / So you dropped a button in the plate and spewed up in the church") and new ones from MacGowan's "The Snake" album, such as "DonegalExpress" (a rude, proud one about infidelity) and "Nancy Whiskey" (about the obvious). Plus, Neil Diamond's "Cracklin' Rosie." MacGowan barked, sang and shouted like he cared - or maybe didn't - and that was the charm and the conundrum. It all matters intensely; nothing matters at all. That's punk rock for you.
If you want a common thread - thematic bracketing, as it were - MacGowan started with "Streams of Whiskey" ("I am going, I am going /Where streams of whiskey are flowing") and closed with "Sally MacLennane" ("Sad to say, I must be on my way / So buy me beer and whiskey 'cause I'm going far away").
MacGowan's set was: frantic. Slurry. Shambolic. Romantic. Messed up. Passionate. Diffident. Roughshod. Brimming with jumping-jack joy and celebratory agitation, coursing with cussedness. There were sound-mix malfunctions. The Popes don't quite possess the finesse of the Pogues. MacGowan sported sunglasses and appeared numb between songs - at a comfortable loss, which he sometimes filled with incomprehensible babble.
During some of the songs' bridges - the instrumental rave-ups, oft a mesh of fiddle, accordion and tin whistle - MacGowan would step back and sip from his drink. MacGowan is the least animated frontman this side of Leonard Cohen, although during the old R&B classic "Hippy Hippy Shake," he did manage to dance awkwardly as the Popes made a happy racket.
The crowd did much the same: pogoing, slamming, drinking, smiling. The main pleasure was witnessing MacGowan's against-the-odds, quasi-rejuvenation-cum-resurrection. "The Snake" is a keeper and MacGowan's show was a signpost, a marker that the old boy still has it in him: spit and spunk, song-smithing and concert slumming, an insistence on scrambling traditional Celtic music and punk rock. What unites them is the passion and pathos, the melancholia and the fury, the sense that the world is a mess and the only choice is to carry on.
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Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.
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