The Pogues, Brixton Academy, London - Fairytale Of London
"Go straight to hell, boys." The voice of Joe Strummer, a one-time Pogue, is the last voice heard before the final curtain call. At the apex of their success, Shane MacGowan and his band of Irish punks tempted fate by calling their 1988 crowning glory If I Should Fall from Grace with God. MacGowan still believes he paid the price for his prescience by exiting the band just as the world was at his feet.
It's still open to debate whether MacGowan was pushed or pulled, but it was Strummer who reluctantly filled in for the band's songwriter-in-chief and their most recognisable face. Fifteen years have passed, but now, somewhat surprisingly, here he is, and here they are. They make us wait, but after 15 years, what's a further 15 minutes?
Earlier this year, Kraftwerk played this same venue with an immediacy that belied years of musical near-inactivity. So comparable is the rising level of expectancy that one is tempted to expect an arrival with the same expressionist force as everyone's favourite electro-gods managed that evening. Instead, The Pogues negotiate a half-bewildered amble, none ambling more theatrically that MacGowan. It's immaterial, of course. The band are greeted like conquering heroes.
Distinctly Irish roots-rockers they may be, but London is their hometown. The muck and grandeur of the capital gave inspiration to many a Pogues brew. Philip Chevron is quick to acknowledge the debt: "I'd like to thank those that have come to see us. From places like America, Japan, Canada, Bosnia. And especially those who made the trip all the way from north London!" The set-list is a subject for debate. Streams of Whiskey is not so much launched into as agreed by consensus. Further in, MacGowan announces the arrival of Turkish Song of the Damned, only to be corrected by Chevron: it's The Broad Majestic Shannon. The indecision, particularly between MacGowan and the founder member Spider Stacy, may resemble vacillating crows in The Jungle Book, but there's more than a hint of stagework at play. Give the people what they want, and they want it all the time.
Plus, the band are tight. The main body of The Pogues have continued to record and tour, and only MacGowan and Stacy are allowed any slight deviation from the script. MacGowan continues his grievance with the microphone stand, while an emaciated but curiously preserved Stacy takes his frustrations out on that old standby, the cake-tin lid. Still, by the time Chevron takes centre stage for his own Thousands Are Sailing, The Pogues have simply taken off with a confidence born of great material.
MacGowan isn't the only Pogue returning for active duty. Joining MacGowan on an immaculate I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day is the former Mrs Elvis Costello, Cait O'Riordan. If the Pogues boys were all Kilburn and Finsbury Park, the swish O'Riordan looked defiantly Chelsea.
Initially distrusted by purists of Irish music, who questioned the band's Gaelic credentials, The Pogues were keen to build on the traditional music by infusing it with punk attitude and not a little soul. To prove it, they funk the bejeezus out of the venue with the Stax swagger of Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah.
In truth, the band can do very little wrong, but tonight no ghosts walk. The Pogues infuse their shanties with a freshness that makes it seem like 1988 all over again. Traditions, of course, must be respected. Dirty Old Town and The Irish Rover may be recited in pubs from Cricklewood to Dublin every Sunday, but The Pogues' performance of it is tantamount to an oath of allegiance. "Straight to Hell"? Seems unlikely.
(performance rated with 5 stars out of 5)
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