There was no good reason for the Pogues to do a quick two-week American tour. They have no current product -- in fact, they have no current label deal. Frontman Shane MacGowan is sick, indefinitely absent from the group he founded. Goodness knows why they're on the road at all, lugging spit-and-baling-wire equipment and with no press or radio support.
Whatever the reason, the first of two sold-out, vocal, ecstatic crowds at the Wiltern Theatre were glad they came.
With five albums on about as many labels, the Pogues are a cult band with a huge cult. Combining traditional Irish melodies with the aggression of punk, they created a cross-pollination you might call "thrash folk." They call it "rebel music."
Justifiable anger has always been a more potent creative force than righteous indignation. That's why the Pogues and the Clash are more interesting than, say, Bruce Springsteen.
And that's why the mere idea of ex-Clashman Joe Strummer fronting the Pogues had this crowd on its feet from the moment the band took the stage. The pace never let up, and neither did the audience response. The staid Wiltern was almost unprepared to handle the adrenaline.
Barrelling forward for an hour and a half of full-throttle momentum, Strummer didn't so much lead the group through its charge as come along for the ride. Strummer was never a prima donna or guest star; he simply joined the band. And his unmistakable raspy vocals made an ideal substitute for MacGowan's green-toothed snarl.
The eight-piece ensemble (two horn players also popped in for cameos) went back and forth in the Pogues' catalog, segueing from tunes off 1984's "Red Roses for Me" through 1990's "Hell's Ditch." Suddenly, we were no longer in an art deco auditorium in Los Angeles. We were in an Irish pub, celebrating a hard-won football game. Or the basement barracks of the IRA, gathering courage through call-and-response.
The Joe Strummer personality cult went wild when this Clash/Pogues hybrid launched into Clash classics like "London Calling" and "Straight to Hell." The encore of Bobby Fuller's "I Fought the Law," long a Clash concert staple, had the energy of a midsized nuclear plant. By the end of the set, the bandmates were drenched and staggering . . . except for stoic bookends Jem Finer (banjo) and Terry Woods (cittern/mandola.)
The Pogues instrumentation includes not only guitar (Philip Chevron), drum (Andrew Ranken) and bass (Darryl Hunt), but also pennywhistle (Spider Stacy) and accordion (James Fearnley). In rare quiet moments, they could be the atmosphere band at the Renaissance Faire. But then they launch into a raver like "Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah" . . .
The sound mix was lousy and few songs are familiar, since the Pogues
get zip radio support. They didn't even play their best-known tune, "Pair
of Brown Eyes." Still, the show was one of the strongest of the season.
Rage and craft are a great combination.
Your intrepid maintainer is DzM.