The Pogues bring tour to a close in Boston
A review of The Pogues at the House of Blues on March 20
When a punk band performs its old material to an audience consisting largely of people who were still in diapers or not yet born when that material was recorded, one must immediately suspect that nostalgia is at play. In the case of the Pogues, however, I suspect something else might be going on.
The Pogues’ period as a really vital punk-folk band is a very small part of their overall history as a band. The band formed in 1982, and by 1989 they’d recorded their seminal albums and kicked out a place for themselves in musical history. A few years later, they’d recorded one final album with founding singer Shane McGowan and kicked him out as well. Had they stopped playing after the release of Peace and Love in 1989, they would still be the founders and source for the trad/punk blend now carried on by bands like the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. The last twenty years of the Pogues have consisted more or less of breakups, re-formations, and touring on the strength of those first albums, with very little of note added to the band’s repertoire or sound. Since 2001, the band has been touring with the lineup that became definitive after the departure of Cait O’Riordan following the recording of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and this is the band that came to the House of Blues on Friday night.
The setlist was no surprise: starting with “Streams of Whiskey” and “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”, the band uncorked a nice long set of material drawn almost entirely from their first four albums, all of which was played quite well, sticking close to the original recordings for the arrangements. McGowan’s voice has not improved over the years – he still does more to suggest the melody than to actually produce it, and his enunciation is dodgy at best – but he delivered the songs with the air of a half-mad poet, sometimes slightly surprised at what he’d come up with and pleased by his own work, sometimes in full possession of – or fully possessed by – the song, as on a fierce reading of “Turkish Song of the Damned”. Between verses, he stood quite still, listening, and it seemed that mostly it was the music he was hearing. His between-song banter was, as ever, an incomprehensible garble out of which one could extract a speck of sense, but the half-smile on his face made me wonder if he wasn’t having us on a bit. Hard to say, really, as with the best poets and drunkards and madmen. When he tottered off the stage to let the band play an instrumental, he was clutching a bottle of white wine, but it never looked like it had been hard-used when he returned. It was unfortunate, however, that he got some of his biggest cheers of the night when he took a slug from the bottle. It’s one thing to celebrate an alcoholic for his poetry, it’s exceedingly poor taste to cheer a poet for his alcoholism.
And his poetry is really the reason this band is still playing in 2009. Hearing him, and watching him, it was easy to remember that this is one of the finest poets of the punk era, and there is something in him which is worth hearing, apart from and despite his commitment to a life of alcoholism. This is a man who can put his own poems against those of Ewan MacColl, one of the finest lyricists of the working class, and come out standing, a test that not many would want to face, and few would survive. Hearing MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town” and MacGowan’s “Sally MacLennane” played almost back to back made this comparison explicit: after this concert, one could believe (and many do!) that both songs were written by the same man. On later albums, MacGowan’s slurred delivery fails to conceal a broad and literate mind, able to get the kids to pogo while he name-checks Coleridge and Jean Genet, and to get them to stop pogoing for a song that does in two minutes something that takes a French director an hour and a half, and that most short story writers today can’t manage at all.
It’s a pity that this literary brilliance was largely lost on an audience which seemed more interested in having been there than in being there, but the band didn’t seem to mind too much. The cool professionalism that they brought to the songs – all of which must be thoroughly burned into their synapses by now – did not mean boredom on their part, it meant they had attention to spare for having fun, each in their own way. Spider Stacy, the band’s tin whistle player, was old-school about it, stepping up to play his parts with a fierce determination and stepping back to wait the next blast, beating time with his whistle, the very picture of a punk rock tin whistle player. James Fearnley, on the other hand, never stood still for a moment. Unfettered by microphones and wires, he was all over the stage with his accordion, running back and forth in front of the monitor lines and leaping off the drum risers with an impressive disregard for the condition of his fifty-five year old knees. Fearnley and guitarist Phil Chevron came out vying for the title of “best-dressed Pogue”, but& Fearnley ceded the competition early on, by ripping the knees out of his trousers on one of those flying leaps. Chevron showed more concern for his threads (a particularly natty grey suit, and a sharp pair of shoes in the bargain), and limited his physical exertions to stepping over the monitors periodically to stir up the crowd, and some occasional goofy dance steps.
So, was this a nostalgia show? Watching the audience, I think there are some who came for the good old days, either the ones they miss or the ones they missed out on. I hope that they got what they wanted, and a glimpse of something more, but I imagine they felt the thing to be a bit hollow – a bunch of old guys on stage, playing at being young. But there were others – including, I suspect, some members of the band – who came to pay respect to a great poet and a great band. What they got was more than they had the right to expect: they got a great show.