Pogues throw more in the mix
Let's look at these tags. Irish? No. Although Irish traditional music forms a key part of the Pogues' sound, only multi-instrumentalist-singer Terry Woods is Irish. Lead singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan is second-generation Irish. But the Pogues are London-based. English.
Drunk? Though the current push to the press is to tone down the public image as constant inebriates, the Pogues do like to drink and the frontmen, MacGowan and tin whistle player-singer Spider Stacy were gulping from big green plastic cups on the Opera House stage throughout Saturday's 100-minute show. "I was drinking tequila and grapefruit juice," explained Stacy, later. "I'm not sure what Shane was drinking."
The band opened with "Streams of Whiskey" - "I am going, I am going to where streams of whiskey are flowing!" - serving as, one supposes, a statement of purpose. MacGowan did waver a lot. He and Stacy continually overlapped when introducing songs. It might thus be surprising to hear him let rip with some terrific harsh vocals. And the man was born to sing Eric Bogle's "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," which the Pogues played as an encore. When MacGowan bit down on "Christ, I wished I was dead," he was that disillusioned, legless veteran of Gallipoli. Frankly, his anger, disgust and resignation towered above Bogle's more genteel, if equally political, rendition.
"The Dubliners meet the Sex Pistols on speed?" Yes, always, but there's much more these days. The Irish trad/punk foundation is still dominant - and Woods' anti-Brit comment before the politically driven protest duo "Streets of Sorrow"/"Birmingham Six" drew the biggest cheer - but there's a lot more in the mix these days. A sampling: the spy-movie jazz of "Gridlock," the zesty, horn-led Spanish sounds of "Fiesta," the elegiac, yet strident, hard rock of "Lorelei," the punk parody of the ultra-rude thrashing of "Hot Dogs with Everything." The Pogues did close properly, of course, with "The Irish Rover," the English hit they recorded last year with the Dubliners.
The major change the Pogues have undergone is that MacGowan, while the main singer and writer, is not the full-time focal point anymore. Chevron wrote and sang "Lorelei," Stacy sang, well barked, Steve Earle's "Johnny Come Lately" and "Hot Dogs," drummer Andrew Ranken sang "Cotton Fields" and "Star of County Down," and, most notably, Woods sang "Streets of Sorrow," "Rats," and "Young Ned of the Hill." It is Woods, a veteran of Steeleye Span and certainly the oldest Pogue, who seems the most political writer of the lot; "Young Ned" started elegantly, mournfully, and it built to a ferocious peak, as Woods damned Oliver Cromwell for "raping the motherland" and sent him off with "May you burn in hell tonight."
Not to slight MacGowan, who remains as compelling an anti-star as ever - cursing, mumbling, cigarette smoking his specialties; he spent most of "The Gentleman Soldier" with the lyric sheet inadvertantly plastered to his crotch, held there by a fan - but spreading out the singing and songwriting chores has helped the band grow. (It also frees the band to do about 40 minutes of non-MacGowan tunes, which they had to do on a recent tour with Bob Dylan when MacGowan took 10 days off due to, as manager Frank Murray put it, "exhaustion.")
The Pogues have developed an astonishing musical breadth, one that complements their well-cultivated emotional range. Sadness, place in any genre, the Pogues seem to be saying, and damned if we aren't going to play 'em all. Concertinas, accordions, banjos and tin whistles dart and weave amongs electric guitar, bass and drums.
The Pogues' strengths are such that they turned a throwaway single, "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" into one of the evening's highlights, a soul-styled raver boasting sassy horn bursts from the two tagalong horn players and gang vocal call-and-response shouts. Jem Fearnley took a spotlight on accordion, bassist Daryl Hunt, Stacy and Chevron yelled their heads off at MacGowan who gave it right back. Big, brassy fun.
Opening act Phranc - who has long described herself as your "average all-American Jewish lesbian folksinger" - didn't quite click. She's got punk-rock roots and credibility, a wonderful, sonorous voice, reminding one of a young Joan Baez, but she's overly self-referential and many of her songs are too simply drawn. Her anti-apartheid song, for instance, names the usual villains, and her song about her pals on the swim team is just too cloying.
Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.