The Pogues - Brixton Academy, London
Gig played on 20/12/04
Because he's a true poet, we'll always forgive him. With lesser mortals, you'd gaze upon a man staggering and swaying, mumbling his words and randomly thwacking himself over the head with a tin tray, and shake your head with despair. With Shane MacGowan you think, "well, he's slurring, but at least he's slurring in time." In fact, any sign of coherence, and we're delighted: "Shane's on good form tonight." As long as he doesn't fall off the stage, we're in for a grand time.
You always hope for redemption with The Pogues, that one day we'll see MacGowan back at his artistic best. Not because alcohol plus nostalgia equals a huge heart-warming dollop of goodwill (which it does and there's plenty of the stuff sloshing around tonight). But because, in his songs, Shane's always managed to find a glimmer of beauty and romance in even the most desperate of situations. He's been shat on and spat on and raped and abused - but we've swayed along with him, clung onto the promise of life.
So we come to celebrate and to hope. An ideal pre-Christmas night out in other words, complete with two giant tinsel-clad trees onstage and the best festive song of all time waiting in the wings as a showstopper. And Shane is on good form. When a chair is wheeled on at the start, you expect him to plump himself down for the evening, but no. He throws some banter out at the crowd every so often, he runs through his series of pub tricks to keep himself amused (tin tray/seeing how far he can push a mic stand before it falls over/pint glass on head, etc, etc), and he doesn't flail around for a lyric sheet or miss a beat once all night.
The fast songs are slurred and indistinct. Streams Of Whiskey, Sally MacLennane. If you aren't bawling along already, you're in trouble. But then it was always thus. That's part of the drama, surely, part of the spirit of the group. It's the slow songs, though, where his voice really comes into focus, suddenly rough and clear and rasping with emotion. A Rainy Night In Soho is glorious, every bit as heart-stopping as returning to your hometown in the small hours. A Pair Of Brown Eyes comes drenched in nomadic spirit and bleary, blurry romance. The Old Main Drag even more so. All look far beyond that initial idea of punked-up celticism, bringing a huge talent to centuries of tradition.
He wanders offstage every four or five songs, of course. And when Jem Finer or Spider Stacey take over, the singing's technically better but lacking somehow, those raised hopes and dashed expectations absent. It's proof that, even now, Shane's got something intangible, the ability to conjure up the grit of reality on a night given over to dreams and memories. Possibly the only singer able to match him has been out of the band for twenty years, but here's Cait O'Riordan back to soar through A Man You Don't Meet Everyday and, finally, to step in for Kirsty McCall on Fairytale Of New York. Needless to say, it's spectacular. A couple in front of LAUNCH act out the entire song, finger pointing and linking arms for a reel. Everyone else bawls along, hugging, dancing, football crowd ecstatic.
He could have been someone? Look around you: he still is.
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