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Story by Tony Bonyata
First off, the timing couldn't have better. With St Paddy's Day just around the corner, The Pogues' own cocktail of traditional Irish folk music mixed with late '70s UK punk proved the perfect music accompaniment to hoisting a pint of Guinness and reveling in a night of spirited live music with friends and fans in honor of the season. Secondly, this was The Pogues' only scheduled show in the Midwest, and only the third time since the early '90s that the band's signature line-up was all present; consisting of James Fearnley, Spider Stacy, Jem Finer, Andrew Ranken, Phil Chevron, Terry Woods, Darryl Hunt and MacGowan. Lastly, and most important, here was a band of seasoned musicians at the top of their game that deftly delivered one beloved Pogues classic after another. The band blasted into the evening with their opening reel "Streams of Whiskey," from their 1984 debut Red Roses For Me, and preceded with other crowd-pleasers such as "If I Should Fall From The Grace Of God," "The Irish Rover," "The Broad Majestic Shannon" as well as two of their most definitive folk songs "A Pair Of Brown Eyes" and "Dirty Old Town" that had nearly the entire packed house singing together in unison.
But for practically every one of their beautiful ballads performed, they also offered up amphetamine-fueled, punk-drunk gems. The rowdy "Bottle Of Smoke," from their 1988 masterpiece If I Should Fall From The Grace Of God, followed immediately by the roof-raising "Sally Maclennane" from their brilliant '85 sophomore album, Rum Sodomy & The Lash, incited both young and (believe it or not) old into the teeming mosh pit of blurred kelly-green, flailing limbs and weathered Doc Marten boots awkwardly sailing across the top of the crowd.
Of course, the main attraction of a Pogues show has always been Shane MacGowan, and whether or not this Irish bard is going to be so pissed on booze, and God knows what else, that he'll even be coherent enough to perform. I've had the, at times uncomfortable, pleasure of witnessing MacGowan a few times before (both with The Pogues and his own solo band The Popes) and his level of sobriety (or, more appropriately, lack thereof) never ceases to entertain. Even when he's hit the stage - with ever-present drink and cigarette in hand - staggering out as if the mic in center stage was the brass ring that you'd swear he'd never be able to grasp, he'd make it just in time for the vocal delivery, which, surprisingly, has always been spot on. His slurred and spotty in-between stage banter, though... not so much.
For his perforfmance last week, the scruffy MacGowan shuffled out on the stage like Ozzy Osbourne trying to find the bathroom in the middle of the night, and his dialogue in between numbers was still totally incomprehensible, but otherwise he seemed more lucid and focused than ever before. He nailed his vocals - from the waltzing, crooning balladry of "The Body Of An American," "A Rainy Night In Soho" and "Lullaby Of London" to his signature blood-curdling banshee howls on "Bottle of Smoke" and the closing Mexican-infused party anthem "Fiesta."
While Shane's shenanigans have always made him the toothless, whiskey-soaked poster boy for The Pogues, it's the rest of the band that has always, and still does, give the singer a solid backing to prop himself up against. 56-year old James Fearnley, with his massive accordion, leapt about the stage with the unbridled enthusiasm of an adolescent leprechaun after spring's first snow thaw, while Spider Stacy's manic tin whistle offered an energized and jovial foil to many of these songs. Philip Chevron, handsomely clad in a dark jacket and kilt, along with Jem Finer and Terry Woods, wonderfully colored these songs with a multitude of stringed instruments, including mandolin, banjo and guitars.
It's pretty rare to see a mix of young and old fans come together to revel and sway with a band as if they were in the streets of Dublin. Still, it's even rarer for a band to make a 3,000-seat venue feel as if you were somehow partying with friends in the cozy confines of an Irish pub. Yet 30 years on, The Pogues are still capable of pulling both off magnificently. If they never make another new record together, I only hope, that as far as their semi-annual jaunts across the pond here in the Midwest are concerned, that this is far from their last call.
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