The Pogues provide a memorable night
About 1,300 fans showed up on a raw, rainy Sunday night for the Pogues at the Midland theater. And though I can only guess how many were seeing this renowned Irish/punk band for the first time, everyone was seeing them in Kansas City for the first time.
Thus the air of anticipation in the room before the show, much of it due to the band’s frontman, Shane MacGowan, whose infatuation with alcohol is legend.
About 9:20 p.m., the lights went down and the P.A. started playing the Clash’s “Straight to Hell.” MacGowan and his band were reporting for duty. Within moments they were singing “Streams of Whiskey,” foreshadowing intended.
The Pogues played for about 105 minutes. MacGowan was on stage for nearly 80 percent of that time. He tripped once — took a face-down header to the floor as he left the stage. But he responded with a rejoinder: “That’s why they call me Captain Trips.” Otherwise, he was upright, if not completely upstanding, and relatively sharp, his enunciation notwithstanding.
If you could pick a time to see one of your favorite bands for the first time, it probably would not be when most of the members were headed toward their 60s and the lead singer was in his third decade of debauchery. It’d be when they were vibrant and vital, like the Stones or the Who in the late ’60s.
At the end of the new millennium’s first decade, the reunited Pogues aren’t young and vibrant, but they have rekindled some of their vitality. As a freewheeling band, they can still start a roaring fire, especially accordionist James Fearnley, the resident gymnast and cheerleader, who slid across the stage on knee pads several times, and banjo player Jem Finer and mandolinist Terry Woods, who applied accents and filigrees to the arrangements all night.
When MacGowan was escorted/ushered off the stage, someone took over lead vocals, like Spider Stacy on the jaunty “Tuesday Morning,” a track recorded after MacGowan was booted from the band.
The center of most everyone’s attention, though, was the cadaverous MacGowan, whose acccessories included large sunglasses, a lit cigarette and a drink. As he strutted on stage, he looked like a combination of Keith Richards and Cruella De Vil (with a touch of Dean Martin).
When he spoke — a mix of a hard growl and a wheeze — he was pretty much incomprehensible, kind of like Ozzy Osbourne. (“I need closed-captioning,” a friend texted.)
But when he sang it was usually a different story. He sounded rough and reckless during a few songs, and he wasn’t helped by the sound mix, which was spotty at best.
But MacGowan can still deliver a performance that will make a longtime fan grateful he was there to hear it. Notables included his heartfelt rendition of “Rainy Night in Soho,” and the evening’s other stellar moment, the Celtic string-band rendition of “Dirty Old Town.” Even the hyperventilating version of “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” an early highlight, sounded close enough to the original that you could ignore its sloppy edges.
There were other highlights: the traditional “Irish Rover,” which MacGowan introduced as “Dog, which is God spelled backward”; “Sunnyside of the Street”; “The Old Main Drag”; “Bottle of Smoke”; and the two rollicking closers, “Poor Paddy” and “Fiesta.”
Those of us who had never seen the Pogues had nothing to compare this show to. So it would be easy to let the thrill of the opportunity overshadow the quality of the performance and MacGowan’s behavior, which was both charming and oddball at the same time — like the random banshee shrieks he issued a few times.
He also smoked and drank nonstop on stage. During the final number, he poured a bottle of beer onto his face and into his mouth; much of it ended up on the floor. You could get indignant about the stereotype he was reinforcing, or you could laugh, shake your head and look the other way, which is what most people seemed to do.
Even by the strictest of measures, this was a lively and entertaining — though imperfect — show, certainly worth the $45 admission. It was also a once-in-a-lifetime performance, if only because it’s highly unlikely the Pogues will come this way again, no matter how long Shane remains standing.
The Detroit Cobras: The opener, a garage/cover band from Motown, has improved its live shows. The band made a good impression on a crowd that was hungering for the headliners. The Midland felt a little large for them, though. At a place like the RecordBar, they would have killed.
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