Pogues stir up a big fiesta

Publication: Chron.com

Author: Andrew Dansby

Date: October 30, 2009

Reviewed gig: Houston, TX, House of Blues; October 29, 2009

Original Location: Link

The band was tight and the frontman, at least when singing, was largely cohesive. Nearly 20 years after earning a reputation as a crapshoot on stage the Pogues have become reliable. The band didn't exude perfection last night at House of Blues. Perfection and the Pogues fit as well as modesty and Rolex.

Frontman Shane MacGowan - the only one drinking something other than a tumbler of water - got lost on a lyric or two. But I've seen the guy in pretty much every state, from a show where he was borderline lucid to a another where he tripped before the first song, spilled his margarita, screamed an expletive and stormed off stage. Reunited with his old band and in Houston for the first time, I believe, since they played Numbers in 1989, MacGowan largely kept it together, spitting his marvelous songs with a semi-sloshed sneer that gradually stirred up an enthusiastic crowd that ranged from those who remember the band from its 1980s heyday to others not born at that time. It might not have been the best show I've seen this year, but it was a visceral thrill to see this beloved band so functional. If not the best, sentimentality made it my favorite.

I'd read an account from an earlier tour stop in Kansas City written by a disappointed concert-goer who said MacGowan was unintelligible. Last night MacGowan seemed fine when immersed in song. It was only the between-song banter that was indecipherable. Occasionally it involved Napoleon.

Often slow to get the wheels turning, MacGowan seemed on the beat from the outset with a feisty three-song opener: Streams of Whiskey, If I Should Fall From Grace With God and The Broad Majestic Shannon.

Then he took a one-song break. The breaks - there'd be a few more - were a little awkward, but Terry Woods, Phil Chevron and Spider Stacy admirably stood in for turns at the mic. MacGowan seemed to fall back on his heels on Boys From the County Hell, but after a second break he gained energy as the evening rolled on. The backstage visits are a necessary concession to a life lived a certain way. I've seen the guy look worse, hanging to a mic stand for dear life. He now walks like an elderly woman after a hip replacement. But unlike the overly blitzed nights of the past he sang with gritty purpose. His yeearghs remain among rock's finest primal screams. As for the rest of the Pogues, they have the look of gleeful survivors. Gone are the full heads of curly hair, but in their place is a clear-eyed zeal for playing this music.

He tripped up a bit on A Pair of Brown Eyes, a moot point as the lovely song is unbreakable. And from Sunny Side of the Street on, he sang, drank and smoked with persistent purpose, adding the requisite disdain to Dirty Old Town, and stirring up revelry with Irish Rover and Bottle of Smoke. He got lost on the second verse of the latter, but it hardly mattered: The chorus is the deal-closer.

A show-closing Fiesta was an apt summation for the whole thing: a celebration of people and places and drink, from con leche to brandy, shaken up into a multi-lingual froth inspired by a film shoot and a wedding, dappled with ill translations, references to Coleridge and the most joyous instrumentation (including a baking sheet) that punk orthodoxy would allow.

MacGowan then baptized himself by pouring half a bottle of wine down his gullet and the other half down the front of his shirt. The act drew hoots and hollers but was a grim reminder of how committed he is to this dubious existence, a house poet and jester and tortured entertainer. He's a weathered 51; if the band takes 20 years to come back to Houston, it seems unthinkable he'd be coming along.

So it mattered more than ever that one could understand his singing. As much as MacGowan's oceanic drinking is celebrated, it's the byproduct of what he does. The lyrics and the vocals -- smart, angry, defiant, funny, poignant and sometimes sentimental -- are what makes him a compelling and great artist with a deep catalog of memorable songs. They're the reason for the whole fiesta.

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