STRUMMER TAKES THE LEAD
Joe Strummer struck a note of caution at the beginning of the Beacon Theatre concert on Friday night. "We will attempt," he said, "to play Cottonfields.'" Yes, 'Cottonfields,' like so much else was a Shane MacGowan composition that was going to be performed by someone other than the man himself.
Everybody was saying how weird it was going to be to see the Pogues without Shane MacGowan -- Hamlet without the prince and so on. The Pogues miss MacGowan but he was never the sum total of the band.
The center of gravity has shifted -- but that's not a big problem when you have talent like Joe Strummer, Terry Woods and Philip Chevron, any one of whom would be sufficient to anchor a top flight band.
After last weeks two New York gigs -- both packed houses--it can be reported that the band remains one of the most exciting live acts around, and with Joe Strummer center stage they have in place a unique driving force to replace MacGowan.
Strummer gave a magical performance and throughout he was the one pulling the music and the band together -- sometimes it seemed by the scruff of the neck. It was not easy, in this their first gigs with Strummer fronting -- and the acoustics in the Beacon were no help. On Thursday night the sound was muffled -- on Friday it had improved but the miking seemed disorganized.
One thing was obvious from the very beginning of both their Beacon gigs: despite the absence of Shane they had decided to do his songs and perform them with gusto. Indeed, Friday highlights included drummer Andrew Rankin's versions of the 'Broad Majestic Shannon' and the 'Star of the County Down.'
This also had the unintended effect of presenting the material of one of contemporary music's great song writers in a form in which the lyrics could clearly be understood by listeners unfamiliar with the songs. This has not been the case with MacGowan performances for some time.
One dubious note was struck with Strummer's rendering of the MacGowan classic, 'Sickbed of Cuchullain.' Maybe at some point the band can do this one without MacGowan but on Friday it didn't really make it.
The ticket price would have been worth it just to hear Philip Chevron perform his immigration song 'Thousands Are Sailing.' Chevron's own rendering of the song seemed to have so many more nuances than the MacGowan version.
Throughout Friday night Chevron, along with Strummer, accordionist James Fearnley and tin whistle player Spider Stacey literally flung this act at an enthusiastic audience with virtuoso performances that were driven by a staggering display of energy. Stacey seemed to be auditioning for the MacGowan vocal chords award with a voice that seemed to have had sand paper applied to it.
A big crowd favorite was the Clash classic, 'London Calling' which Strummer belted out with gusto, and 'I Fought the Law' -- both numbers Strummer has performed in the past as a guest with the Pogues. Strummer had the assistance of Black 47's piper Chris Byrne and visiting maestro, Paddy Keenan in a great rousing version of 'Dirty Old Town.'
Friday's lackluster performance by Terry Woods was perhaps an indication that some internal balancing needs to be worked out by the band. He simply trotted out the incendiary 'Young Ned of the Hill' and gave a perfunctory treatment to Gartloney Rats.' Otherwise he might as well have been elsewhere.
That apart there seems to be plenty of life left in this band. The long term verdict will have to await the arrival of an album minus MacGowan.
Copyright 1991 Irish Voice