A Rainy Night in Sodo
Sentimentality gets a bad rap. Critics—of film, literature, music—stigmatize it as emotional blackmail, pandering to easily provoked feelings. But in the post-post-ironic era, that’s not what it’s about; it’s about feeling something, anything, and it’s far harder and more vulnerable to admit to feeling something than to just be cool and detached and so-yeah-whatever.
Boozy sentimentality is the best kind of sentimentality, because booze is a lens, and looking through it at life is a near-universal process, useful to almost anyone in any place and any era. Boozy sentimentality is sadly misunderstood and underrated. But when you begin to appreciate the Pogues, boozy sentimentality becomes a rare and profound art.
That’s what the band brought to Showbox Sodo last night. Their music is painfully conflicted, the band is habitually fraught with drama, and it all exploded in a beer-soaked Irish-folk-punk gestalt over the course of their two-hour set. At what other show is the studded leather jacket-to-tweed paperboy cap ratio dead even? Where else can you find a crowd-surfing mosh pit in the front and an arm-in-arm jig circle in the back?
Truly great bands run on conflict—not violent, but artistic. John versus Paul. Mick versus Keef. Chuck versus Flava. With the Pogues, it’s Shane versus Everyone Else in the Band. Shane MacGowan—his brilliant lyrics, his punkish growl, his mortifying alcoholism—is the focal point of the Pogues, but the rest of the band is equally responsible for the music. Shane wrote most of the songs, but Jem Finer and Spider Stacy and James Fearnly all contributed heavily over the years. To some extent, they must resent Shane’s recklessness. It’s a loose but useful comparison: They are Chuck D—hardworking, serious, intent. Shane is Flav—wry, volatile, dangerous. It’s one of the several conflicts that make the Pogues a truly great band.
Another: Emotional dissonance. For their first encore, the band played “A Rainy Night in Soho,” one of the all-time most romantic love songs ever. (Conflict within conflict: A drunken love song? Yes. MacGowan may be a wreck, physically, but his romantic spirit has never been broken.) A look around the crowd showed more than a few couples swaying and crying to the song. It was a beautiful moment. And then they played “Irish Rover,” a traditional, revved-up Irish reel, and all tears were bounced out by manic, crowd-wide pogoing.
But I’m getting ahead of the program. You’re certainly wondering, so here’s the answer: Shane looked good. Shane sounded good. Far better on both counts than this time last year when I saw him in San Francisco. The band walked onstage to the Clash’s “Straight to Hell”—the best at-bat song ever—led by Shane in a top hat and Wayfarer shades. He ripped right into “Streams of Whisky” with a strong voice and spot-on timing. They couldn’t have set a more relieved—and in turn celebratory—mood.
One by one, the band—eight strong, with mandolin, guitar, bass, drums, pennywhistle, accordion, and Shane—cranked out album cut after album cut. These songs are timeless: Lusty versions of “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” “Boys From the County Hell,” “Turkish Song of the Damned,” and “Body of an American” (with the crowd chanting along to “I”m a free born man of the USA!”). They’d play a pair with Shane and then he’d leave the stage, the rest of the band ripping into rock ‘n’ roll-inflected numbers in his absence. Pennywhistler Spider Stacey had an especially Strummer-esque inflection to his voice on “Tuesday Morning.”
It was the Pogues’ MacGowan-led hits that frothed the place into a frenzy. They were interspersed through the set, but during the second half of the show—more than an hour in—they all came crashing out: “Sunny Side of the Street,” a top-of-the-lungs singalong to “Dirty Old Town,” mandolin strummed madly. “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” ended the set, moshers spazzing out to references to the IRA and Italian fascists.
After the song was finished and the band left the stage, nobody in the crowd moved. This was a drastically special occassion, after all—not just the Pogues, but the Pogues with Shane, and the Pogues with Shane sounding as gutted and angry as ever, and the rest of the band feeling their collective potency.
The encore double-whammy of “A Rainy Night in Soho” and “Irish Rover,” as already stated, cut deep. That transition embodies everything the Pogues can be: beautiful and tragic and gushing with raw emotion. And it is beautiful, despite Shane’s toothless, haggard visage. The music is full of joy, and Shane, the face of the music, is a triumph of human spirit over human frailty. It was a moment frozen in time until the music stopped and the band left the stage once more.
A double encore! The band played “Fiesta,” a horn-driven, Irish mariachi rave-up that had the crowd going nuts. For added percussion, Spider Stacey smashed a tin beer tray against his head. Everyone was singing:
Come all you rambling boys of pleasure / And ladies of easy leisure / We must say adios! / Until we see / Almeria once again
A lot of us flubbed the last line, but there was too much beer on the floor and joy in the air to care about such details.
After they finished, the buzz lingered inside the place, and then carried on outside on the rainy sidewalk. Everything about the night exceeded expectations: Shane was lucid and vibrant, the band was ragingly on, the new venue sounded great. It was, everyone around me agreed, one for the ages—sentimentality be damned.
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