Publication: San Jose Mercury News
Date Printed: Friday, December 11, 1987
Section: Weekend
Page: 14D
By: HARRY SUMRALL, Mercury News Pop Music Writer

FOLK music isn't a sound -- strumming guitars and nasal, whining voices -- or a look -- a bunch of geeks in sweaters strumming those guitars. Neither is it, necessarily, a load of furrowed brows reciting ancient words from a textbook and hugging a squeeze box.

Folk music is, literally, the music of the folk, no matter what their age, nationality or historical period. It is a feel that makes the mind wander amid memories and emotions and might, simultaneously, make the body slide into a reel or a jig, or whatever happens to be the dance of the day.

The Pogues play folk music. Wednesday night the group played its folk music for a sold-out crowd at the Old Fillmore.

Superficially, the Pogues play Irish traditional music, with all the furious rhythms and lilting melodies that that implies. But just as the listener is drawn into the seemingly familiar sound, Shane McGowan's vocals cut in with the brash, shouted brusqueness of a punk. And as the ears do a jig trying to make sense of it all, the group breaks into a traditional ditty like "The Irish Rover" to thoroughly confuse matters.

Ah, but there's no confusing the feel. Forget the tin whistle and accordion that sound somewhat authentic, and the drums and bass that make other suggestions. The Pogues play with an intensity that makes categories superfluous. The jigs and reels call up ancient traditions just as those shouted McGowan vocals sound as new as the crinkle of black leather. The Pogues are the Chieftains by way of the Clash.

Speaking of which, at one point in this show, McGowan saw fit to make note of the group's guitarist, Joe Strummer, formerly of the Clash. Strummer took the spotlight for renditions of "I Fought The Law" and "London Calling." And, the wonder of it all, those songs sounded little different from those of the Pogues. Folk, it would seem, wears many hairdos.

This was a lovely show. First, because Irish traditional music -- no matter how it is interpreted -- is such. But also because the Pogues have an affection for their music that allows them to have their way with it. All music -- not just folk -- should be played this way.

Speaking of which. While the Pogues were waiting to take the stage, a group from the Bay Area, Penelope Houston and the Birdboys, was playing in a tiny barlike room off the balcony. There were five of them, scratching out raw, rough versions of songs such as "Gimme Some Lovin' " on an acoustic guitar, washtub bass, accordion and, of all instruments, bongos.

Houston and her mates made no attempt to be "accomplished" in any sense. They were too busy expressing themselves. Sounding like a bunch of friends who had assembled to play the songs they love, they tossed out their music with a fervent innocence that was astounding.

This was folk or rock or whatever, played with a feel that worked its way into the psyche with a freshness that made the ears think they were hearing music again for the first time.

Copyright 1987, San Jose Mercury News
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