GRAVELLY MUSINGS OF AN IRISH SURVIVOR
Shortly after midnight on Friday night, Shane MacGowan arrived onstage at Tramps to a roar from the sold-out club. He was wearing sunglasses and weaving slightly, holding a bottle of white wine and a cigarette. Slack-jawed and blurry-voiced, diddling with the microphone stand that he was leaning on, he said, "Let's do 'Streams of Whisky,' " and his band, the Popes, took up a brisk reel, topped with pennywhistle. The dance floor, already puddled with beer, erupted in motion, with some people doing traditional Irish steps, others slam-dancing.
The reaction was familiar for Mr. MacGowan, who founded the Pogues in 1982 as a blend of the Clash and the Chieftains. The Pogues combined traditional Irish instruments, a punk-rock rhythm section and Mr. MacGowan's own slurred, gravelly singing. He wrote smart, rowdy songs about drinking and gambling, about Irish history and current political prisoners, about lost love and about the toll of war. His voice was just right for his lyrics; it was rough and bedraggled, thoroughly lived in.
In 1991, Mr. MacGowan's drinking problem led him to leave the Pogues, who continued without him for a few years. But Mr. MacGowan has now re-emerged with his own album, The Snake (ZTT/Warner Brothers) and a virtually unchanged approach; the Popes sound like an unpolished Pogues.
Mr. MacGowan has become an archetypal figure, joining a long line of hard-drinking Celtic writers; like them, he is applauded for persevering through his excesses. For a while at Tramps, he barely kept up with the band, whose members sometimes sang along as if to keep him in sync. But the audience was singing along, too, as Mr. MacGowan chose familiar Pogues songs, and all the jubilant affection soon energized him. Although his voice stayed muddled when he introduced songs, his singing gained power; eventually he took off the sunglasses. He didn't forget any of his words.
Singing other people's songs, like "The Hippy Hippy Shake," he could have been belting at a karaoke bar. But in his own songs he was the living image of the characters he described, the hard-living, hard-loving, long-suffering Irishman who would continue to straggle onward. The audience, which was full of drunken amateur singers, could not have identified more strongly with the star; he was one of them, the one with the gifts of melody and storytelling.
The Waltons, a band from Saskatchewan with no members named Walton,
shared the bill. Like Elvis Costello, the Waltons are steeped in 1960's
folk-rock and the Beatles, and they're ingenious; as they sing about bitter,
dead-end romances, sweet harmonies emerge as if consolation were still
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