Beer, Brawls and Potcheen-doused Brilliance
Even though it’s officially still winter, this is Hotlanta, and inside converted church The Tabernacle, it feels like it’s 100 degrees, 100 percent humidity. The venue’s defining feature, an enormous pipe organ, protrudes from behind the stage backdrop and light scaffolding, a remnant of the place’s holier days.
I check my phone. It’s just before 9 p.m. The floor is getting crowded. Roadies meander about the stage, setting up gear. After a while, a rather interesting item is carted out. Sitting ominously, tragically (tragicomically?) at the center of the stage is a lone, padded bar stool—Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan’s seat. Over the years, MacGowan has been known as much for his unparalleled drinking and drug use as his brilliant songwriting. That he’s got a barstool ready if he needs to take a load off is charming, if not a little shocking in its lack of self-consciousness.
IT WAS MONDAY EVE, BABE, IN THE DRUNK TANK
Many of the diehards in the crowd—inspired by the anticipation of their favorite band’s rowdy booze-fueled songs, and perhaps MacGowan’s own penchant for strong drink—arrive three sheets to the wind. The show hasn’t even started yet and, already, some burly, bearded, proud-to-be-Irish musclehead punks about 15 feet from center stage are getting restless. Looking for a fight, they flail about, shoving people, knocking over their neighbors’ drinks and hollering for Shane.
“Shane!!!” screams the mean looking bastard next to me. “Hey, motherfucker…” I look up, at first confused as to whom this meathead is talking to.
“Yeah. You. Do you love Shane?!” I realize that the wrong answer, perhaps even the wrong inflection in my answer, could mean a Hell’s Angels-style beating. Luckily, though, I do—I do love Shane. Sincerely. So I tell Bobby O’Brien as much.
“That’s right. You damn well better,” he says, grabbing me uncomfortably tightly around the shoulders. Suddenly, I feel like an extra in Gangs of New York. ’Ol Bobby turns and looks me straight in the eyes, tightening his grip even more, summoning his inner lie detector to see if I’m a true Pogues fan or a gutless pretender.
“You know,” he says, whiskey on his breath, “most people here don’t even care about this band.”
“Fuckin’ poseurs,” I agree, for reasons of self-preservation.
While my instincts in this situation have helped me avoid a black eye, I’ve now been singled out as this guy’s little buddy—he’s hanging on me, giving me goddamned noogies and spine-cracking back slaps. Oh, Jesus, I think. Fantastic. The biggest asshole here wants to be my friend.
Finally, Bobby O is summoned by one of the other inebriated steroid swallowers in his gang, and loses interest long enough for me to free myself from his Celtic death grip. But no sooner have I gained respite than the biggest, meanest, most tattooed beast of the bunch starts ramming his way through the crowd toward the stage, throwing aside everyone and everything in his path.
A feisty brunette with a few of her own tats materializes. “Asshole!” she screams as she clocks him repeatedly in the face. After a few stunned seconds, he actually goes after her, grabbing her face and slamming her to the ground. We jump in to restrain him, but it takes a half-dozen of us to hold him back. Once we do, though, he shakes it off and shifts his focus. “Shane!!!” he shouts, just in time for the lights to dim and the band to walk onstage.
FOR WHEN I RETURN, UNITED WE WILL BE
The Last time The Pogues were in Atlanta, George Bush was president—George H.W. Bush. A release of tension like I’ve seldom felt at a concert sweeps across the room, accompanied by a deafening roar. Everyone dances furiously as the band shakes the rust off “Streams of Whiskey,” from its 1984 debut Red Roses for Me. MacGowan blows kisses to the crowd between brilliant, mumbled lines.
I never got to see the band in its heyday, they hung it up when I was a junior in high school, and MacGowan had been kicked out even before that, when I was still playing little league and riding my bike to the neighborhood pool in the summer. Judging from the near-riot going on around me, and the sounds pumping with abandon from the speakers, there’s no way the band has lost a step. Ever since being shot out of the cannon of that first song, they’ve been running on kinetic energy. Whenever Shane screams into the mic, the crowd screams back in unison at him and his seven bandmates.
The Pogues dig into material spanning their catalog—maritime romp “Greenland Whale Fisheries,” vigorous waltz “The Broad Majestic Shannon,” “If I should Fall From Grace with God,” “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” “Cotton Fields,” “Sayonara,” “Tuesday Morning” (sung by tin-whistle player Spider Stacy, who briefly took over lead vocals when MacGowan was booted from The Pogues in the early ’90s).
When the band breaks into whirling, menacing Eastern-tinged rocker “Turkish Song of the Damned,” the Tabernacle’s wooden floor begins pulsing up and down with the crowd’s ferocious stomping. It feels like the venue could collapse on itself at any moment. But as MacGowan, Stacy and Co. play on, goodwill seems to spread over the room, slowly erasing the initial feeling of impending violence and replacing it with unbridled joy—and lots of clapping and pogo-ing.
By this point, though, something becomes painfully apparent to me—my decision to come straight to the venue instead of going home to change out of the flip-flops I’d been wearing all day was not a wise one. In a situation like this, acceptance of your fate is key. Best not to fight it. Toes crushed and throbbing? Girl with the spiked heels dancing a little too close? Feet sticky with spilled beer? Who cares? This is a Pogues show!
On “Sayonara,” as on every other song the band plays over the course of the night, the whole room sings every word: “I walked into the nearest bar / I sat and gazed across the sea / I wandered lonely on the beach / The waves just whispered misery!”
Nine songs in, MacGowan leaves the stage temporarily, taking a break in a small, black tent at the side of the stage. (My guess is that this Bedouin-like setup was cooked up by Stacy and the rest of the band some years back to keep their frontman from wandering off backstage and getting too sauced to finish the show.) Stacy moves front-and-center for his brilliant, sad-eyed pop song “Tuesday Morning,” which—melodically if not lyrically—is as good as anything MacGowan has ever written.
When it ends, The Pogues lead singer returns to the stage, cigarette in hand, clutching the mic—in a black sweater and jeans, his slightly graying hair frizzy from the humidity, he sways from side to side as he sings. There’s a good chance he’s the coolest frontman I’ve ever seen.
As the band plays through “The Body of an American, it occurs to me how well The Pogues’ intimate yet rambunctious pub punk translates to this 1,800-seat theater. Though it’s the vibe that translates more than the sound. While all the energy is there, The Tabernacle’s PA leaves something to be desired. Between the muffled vocal amplification, Shane’s notoriously indecipherable pronunciation and the excessively rowdy crowd, Macgowan’s beautifully poignant lyrics get lost in the shuffle. Of course, if you already know ’em, you can pick ’em out easily enough.
Before the band begins ’50s folksinger Ewan Macoll’s “Dirty Old Town”—which it covered on 1985 album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash—MacGowan mumbles one of the few bits of banter I can actually make out: “This song was written by a Scottish communist!” What follows is a perfect amalgamation of American stringband music and the traditional Irish sounds that inspired it. You can also see Macoll’s lyrical influence on Macgowan—that no-frills, blue-collar, populist poetry that often shows up in The Pogues’ own music: “I met my love by the gas works wall / Dreamed a dream by the old canal / I kissed my girl by the factory wall … Clouds are drifting across the moon / Cats are prowling on their beat / Spring’s a girl from the streets at night.”
This kind of language is echoed two songs later in Pogues original “The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn,” though MacGowan enters an even darker, seedier, more desperate realm—“You remember that foul evening when you heard the banshees howl / There was lazy, drunken bastards singing Billy is in the bowl / They took you up to midnight mass and left you in the lurch / So you dropped a button in the plate and spewed up in the church.”
SAW A TRAIN SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE
The room still quaking after two hours, as if the longest locomotive ever to grace the rails is still rumbling by, I realize that this band couldn’t phone it in if it wanted to… not when it’s pulling energy from a crowd like this. During the first half of a five-song double encore, The Pogues begin with “Sally Maclennane,” followed by piano ballad “A Rainy Night in Soho”—easily the slowest number of the night, which ends up being the catalyst for a hilariously ironic moment: Smack in the middle of the song, some drunken maniac stage dives. But I’m not talking about just any stage dive. This was the most epic stage dive I’ve ever seen—this man was the Carl Lewis, the Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka of stage divers. With nary a step to get moving, he leapt what seemed from my vantage about 10 feet into the crowd. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. And all this during the most low-key tune of the entire show.
The pace picks up again when the band returns for its second encore, a double whammy of “Poor Paddy” and the crowdpleaser of all Pogues crowdpleasers, “Fiesta,” during which Spider Stacy repeatedly hammers himself over the head with a metal tray as percussive accompaniment. Nothing like seeing a man in his ’50s joyously inflicting pain on himself to entertain a capacity crowd.
Of course, a night like this couldn’t possibly end without one more whiskey-drunk squabble: This time, by the bar, one girl bumps another a little too hard as she’s walking past. Instantly, they’re clawing at each other. After a brief tussle, security separates them and sends them packing. If it weren’t for the infinitely better lyrics and all the cool, traditional Irish instruments being played with punk ferocity on stage; if I were judging just from the fans, this could be a St. Patrick’s day Van Halen concert circa 1984. Take that any way you want. Just don’t tell Bobby O’Brien.
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