Fighting For the Heart And Soul of The Pogues: Revamped Group Triumphs In Boston Show
If there is anything that The Pogues have in abundance, it is changes and a stubborn spirit. The changes are obvious. The most dramatic and dwelled upon being the five year old departure of lead singer Shane MacGowan. The resulting war of words and the media's penchant for spot-lighting conflict over accomplishment has made Shane MacGowan's name a persistent rash that continues to frustrate The Pogues for lack of a cure.
Although, if there new album, Pogue Mahone, and their recent appearance at the Avalon on April 12 is any indicator then The Pogues have crested that up-hall battle. After five rocky years containing the loss of their infamous lead singer, a addition to Phillip Chevron, James Fearnly and Terry Woods, The Pogues have stabilized their line-up. In a BIR interview, founding member Jem Finer looks on the many changes in a positive light: "It's actually a relief. It think it did the band a lot of good, bringing in some new blood."
The show at the Avalon was a testament to that belief. It was an eclectic mix spanning over ten years of playing and many different styles, but The Pogues cohesive presence kept the show from fragmenting. Accordionist James McNally commented, "Our music has the same spirit. Behind all Pogues music, all the albums all the songs, I think the same spirit is there no matter who goes or who comes. Don't ask me about the the ingredients which do that for us, but there is something unique in every song whether it's a hurdy-gurdy with Eastern influences, or an out-and-out Irish song, or a straight English one. The songs might have changed, but the spirit doesn't."
Certainly that spirit continues with Spider Stacey in the lead singer position. Considering the inherently intimidating task of being front and center to the audience, he has grown into the role and made it his own. Gone are the days when an unforgiving audience chanted "We want Shane!" The audience shouts for Spider now and the ghosts of the past are put aside.
His singing style is the sort that we expect from The Pogues: feral, driving, and raucous. Whether it's crowd-pleasing favorites like "Streams of Whiskey" or "Sally MacLennane" or newer materials more familiar to the younger generation of Pogues fans, Stacey's robust fury insists that you take notice. Even if the older generation of Pogues fans feel a special kinship to the classics, you can't ignore songs like "Tosspin," "Tuesday Morning" or one of my favorites "Amadie," a Cajun dominated song flavored by the Pogues vintage London-Irish roots.
When looking at the post-MacGowan material it can be generally said that the band exchanged much of the rude Irish bawdiness for a more coherent, all-inclusive style. "I think this album (Pogue Mahone) is a much stronger, confident Pogues album," says Finer. "I've got my name next to five songs, but they never would have turned out the way they did without what everyone else put into them."
Although Finer is willing to spread the credit around, it should be mentioned that his songwriting skills have had a strong presence throughout the band's career and now in the new line-up has really had a chance to show off his ability to craft good music.
McNally cites unanimity as one of the Pogues leading assets: "You've got seven guys in this band with completely different musical tastes, completely different opinions, but when we get up on stage we're a team. The Pogues before were a lot of individuals. Now we're much more cohesive."
Some fans of The Pogues have also noted that the band's Irishness has waned since the exist of MacGowan and Woods. "All I can say is that I'm not Irish," asserts Finer, "and unless you're a joke you have to write from your own experience. To actually sit down and write songs in Shane's style would be absolutely stupid. It would look stupid."
Finer also calls into question The Pogues usual classification as an Irish band.
"We never were an Irish band: that's what journalists have always said about us and it's total misrepresentation from the word go. The band has always been a London-Irish band, and not even London-slash-Irish so much as London-hyphen-Irish." Asked to describe the Pogues sound, Finer simply states, "The best way to describe our music is just to say 'It's the Pogues.' There isn't band that sounds like us because there are so many or Irish bouzouki, opens up "Turkish Song of the Damned" by playing an otherworldly-sounding Australian pipe called a ditjeridu.
The Pogues also seem willing to let more than one person stand at the lead microphone. During an encore at the Avalon, Andrew Ranken came out from behind the drums for a spirited, gravel-voice rendition of "Who Do You Love?" And "Star of the County Down." Jem Finer and Darryl Hunt also got their turn at the front.
With two successful albums, a solidified internal membership, a growing body of quality material, and an enthusiastic audience, it is this reviewer's opinion that the umbilicus between The Pogues and Shane MacGowan be officially severed. Both sides have gone on to do what they do best, and despite many predictions they have both succeeded.
Granted, there will always be some level of comparison for as long as there are two groups performing the same repertoire of music, but to further perpetuate what is now a five year old split is an insult to the talents of both parties. The Pogues have worked hard to prove that they should not be defined by the loss of Shane MacGowan and they should be rewarded for that hard work.
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Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.
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