Walk in on your feet, leave on your back

Publication: Chicago Reader

Author: Monica Kendrick

Date: March 6, 2007

Reviewed gig: Chicago, Congress Theatre March 5, 2007

Original Location: Link

I adore getting down in the wordplay and reviewing a show, but there are times when there's nothing better than suspending critical thought as much as possible and enjoying something like a civilian. Or so I tried to tell myself when coworker Steve Walker practically picked me up and threw me in front of him (it was an act of chivalry; I'm much shorter than him) just a few rows back from the stage at the first of two Pogues concerts at the Congress Theater last night. Then came the frenzied one-two punch of "Bottle of Smoke" and "The Sickbed of Cuchulainn" and it was pogo or die (or at least get your shins bruised repeatedly by everyone attempting drunken quadruple-time fake stepdancing in a very tightly packed space). I don't think I've seen so many white guys sincerely enjoy dancing that much outside of a Morbid Angel mosh pit.

I bet most longtime fans (I'm one) were glad to see that, while the sold-out and very subculturally diverse crowd was hell-bent on living up to the most pernicious of Irish stereotypes, the only heartbreaking works of genius staggering took place in the audience, not onstage. Front man Shane MacGowan, who's been at the top of the Underground Rock Death Pool since G.G. Allin cacked, was not only on point and lucid (though he still needs English subtitles sometimes), he was plump, fluffy-haired, and bright-shirted, looking downright settled into the kind of middle age that can last a comfortably long time before it turns into old age. Far be it from me to attempt platitudinous psychoanalysis from the pit, but maybe singing those songs again reminded him why he ought to take care of himself and stick around a little longer: "GodDAMN, I'm fuckin' brilliant."

Take any number of the songs they played. Pick one. "Streams of Whiskey." "Dirty Old Town." "The Boys From the County Hell." "If I Should Fall From Grace With God." "Sally MacLennane." "Turkish Song of the Damned." "A Pair of Brown Eyes." "Rainy Night in Soho." Any one of those could be The One Great Song In Them that justifies a band sticking around and cranking out the relative filler for years. In their 80s heyday the Pogues selfishly hoarded enough genius to fuel a whole subgenre. (It's hard to imagine any of the bands beloved of the excellent Celtic-punk Web zine Shite'n'Onions flourishing or even existing in a Pogues-less world. Also note the Tossers promos given out free to good homes at the merch table last night. I took one; I like those guys.) In fact, no matter what they played, there was bound to be grumbling about what they didn't: Brian Nemtusak was displeased to miss guitarist Philip Chevron's shining moment, "Lorelei." I was shocked to not hear "Fairytale of New York." (What, they couldn't find a girl? Every woman there, including Nemtusak's mom, knew all the words: pick someone at random and pull her up onstage! There's no replacing Kirsty MacColl no matter what you do, so it doesn't matter.) Even with a bit of an energy sag in the middle of the set, there was still never going to be enough, no matter what, and I was so enraptured and pumped up by the precision and fire of their playing that I pretended to enjoy songs like "The Sunnyside of the Street" and "Fiesta" more than I actually do.

As for the Pogues' lasting cultural influence, I refer you to this essay by Bob Geldof, which vividly details the way the band gave real Irish music back to disaffected and cynical Irish kids of the punk generation after decades of twee tourist twaddle that'd had its teeth capped. They did something similar for the kind of Irish-American who lets you hear about it all year long, not just during the unofficial Drunken Oirish Bastard History Month. (Full disclosure: I'm of Irish heritage, but according to the family genealogist, the ancestors emigrated from Cork so long ago they were fleeing Cromwell, not the potato famine or more general crappy prospects. But the very fact the family knows this suggests we are quite susceptible to attacks of fake stepdancing when drunk.) To play one's own demented-but-beautiful version of a people's traditional music with fingers cocked in a rude gesture is a brilliant thing no matter what tradition is involved.

The Pogues plan to keep doing this, they say, but waver on whether there'll be a new album or not. MacGowan keeps writing songs though, because that's what he does.


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