Waltzing MacGowan (London)

Publication: The Observer

Author: Luke Bainbridge

Date: December 26, 2004

Section: Review

Original Location: Link

The original Pogues reunite - with and without their great frontman.

The Pogues, Brixton Academy, London SW9.

It wasn't 'Christmas Eve, babe', it was a couple of days before. But the Pogues reforming with their classic line-up was always going be a reason for much festive cheer. Should tonight's audience need another excuse for raising a glass, it comes with the news that the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl's Fairytale of New York has triumphed in a poll on TV music channel VH1 to find the British public's favourite seasonal tune. Much to the chagrin of Bob the Builder and Justin Hawkins, no doubt.

The Pogues's three-night run sold out in hours, and the touts are making a nice little Christmas bonus tonight. Inside, the bars are doing a roaring trade, and by stage time there's a heaving, sweaty, raucous but good-natured drunk tank of a moshpit. A black curtain falls to reveal the original line-up - sans MacGowan - who have aged somewhat since they last shared a stage together. The rapturous roar that greets them matches that which greeted Brixton's other long-awaited reunion of this year, the Pixies, if not exceeds it.

Then here comes our returning hero, stooped and shuffling slowly, cigarette in one hand, a large glass of some indeterminable drink in the other. He actually looks slightly healthier than of late, if a little more rotund. The roar grows even louder. The band strikes up a rousing, furious Streams of Whisky, MacGowan barks indistinguishably into the mic, the drunk tank bounces as one, and natural order is restored.

He gets more lucid as the night goes on, but throughout MacGowan clicks in and out, a mumbled verse followed by a fairly compos mentis chorus, or vice versa. Even when he completely misses his cue, it barely matters, as the crowd hollers the lyrics to every song anyway.

MacGowan is only on stage for a handful of songs - If I Should Fall From Grace, Boys From the County Hell, The Broad Majestic Shannon, Turkish Song of the Damned - before he has to shuffle off for a rest, a routine that's repeated every 15 minutes or so throughout the two-hour set. Vocal duties in his absence are shared on numbers like the emigration song Thousands are Sailing.

The Pogues were always a wonderfully shambolic proposition live, but at a couple of points tonight it feels as if the crowd is holding them up. The arrival of original bass player Cait O'Riordan, who hasn't played with the band since she left in 1986, is a welcome change to the dynamic as she delivers a rousing I'm A Man You Don't Meet Every Day. But it's Shane - most definitely a man you don't meet every day - who captivates the audience completely.

What has sometimes been forgotten amid the long obsession with MacGowan's drinking habit is that, at his peak, he was one of the finest songwriters of his generation. Tonight the band mostly flip between the classic mid-Eighties albums - Red Roses for Me, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace With God. The crowd sings along to everything, even a cod cabaret Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, while certain perennial favourites such as A Pair of Brown Eyes or Ewan MacColl's Dirty Old Town are afforded a welcome worthy of a long-lost relative.

They howl out for more until the eventual fairytale ending, with O'Riordan returning to sing MacColl's part. Cheap fake snow falls on the cheap fake Christmas tree and O'Riordan tries to waltz with a by now inebriated Shane MacGowan. It sounds like Shameless: the Musical, but somehow it is quite magical. Poguetry in motion, as they once said.

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