Sober reality: Pogues’ music soars, but words lost

Publication: The Patriot Ledger

Author: Jay N. Miller

Date: March 23, 2009

Reviewed gig:Boston, MA, House of Blues; March 20-21, 2009

Original Location: Link

QUINCY — There was a moment, as Shane MacGowan’s cracked voice sang the heartbreakingly poignant “Rainy Night in Soho,” over Jem Finer’s delicate banjo accents, and James Kearnley’s accordion, when it was all so transforming you could forgive the Pogues frontman for all of his past indiscretions.

But those moments were rather few Saturday night, as the Pogues wrapped up their North American tour at the House of Blues before a sold-out crowd of about 2,500 enthusiastic fans. The band itself sounded superb, aided by the new venue’s flawless sound system, with as clear and consistent a 90-minute show as we’ve ever heard. The seven Pogues musicians are among the finest Celtic-rock players anywhere, and they delivered in full.

But your man Shane, tipsy as usual, was deep into the gravelly end of his range, rendering most of the lyrics indecipherable. His song intros were semi-comprehensible, although he seemed to be gargling much of the time. When we heard the band a year or so back at the Orpheum, it seemed like tin whistle player Spider Stacy and guitarist Phil Chevron each sang two or three songs, but this time it seemed like each man did one song apiece – meaning more MacGowan, on a night when he sounded like he needed a break.

The jaunty tin-whistle-driven “Streams of Whiskey” was an early treat, prompting much of the crowd on the balcony – where there was room to move – to erupt in impromptu jigs with total strangers. Down on the floor, close to the stage, it looked like a mosh pit was trying to form. Kearnley’s accordion was a highlight, his sweet melodies wafting over all the punky rhythms, and forming the basis for some of the lilting ballads.

There’s nothing like Celtic music for expressing wistful memories, or bittersweet regret, and of course MacGowan, 51, is like a poster boy for wrong turns taken. Even when you can’t catch all the words, his tortured baritone conveys reams of feeling, and Saturday’s 21-song set had some affecting segments. MacGowan shone – understandable or not – on the banjo-fired romp “The Boys from County Hell.” He gave the slower “Body of an American” a kind of tragic grace. And who has ever been able to give “Dirty Old Town” the kind of visceral kick MacGowan does?

But Stacy’s lead vocal on “Tuesday Morning” was terrifically moving, as Kearnley’s accordion and Terry Woods’ mandolin crafted a marvelous traditional backdrop. Whether because it was the tour’s finale, or because MacGowan had been mixing his own cocktails with a bottle of whiskey onstage, the regular set ended after 75 minutes, which seemed a bit short.

Yet that three-song encore segment with “Rainy Night in Soho” was worth waiting for, as the transcendent ballad was followed by a celebratory “Wild Rover” that had fans hopping around, sort of like step dancers.

In short, a night with the Pogues and their ever-unpredictable singer had moments of sheer musical bliss, and moments of consternation.

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Transcribed and made available by Zuzana.