Alehouse Rock (Manchester)
Shane MacGowan is back to lead the celebrations and the drinks are on him - literally, says Dave Simpson.
The Pogues' legendary reputation for insobriety hasn't always equated with good timing. However, only days before a clutch of much-anticipated comeback dates, their 1987 Number 2, Fairytale Of New York, was declared by VH1 viewers as the UK's favourite festive song of all time. The special relationship between The Pogues and Christmas may well be rooted in Shane MacGowan having entered this world 47 years ago on December 25. Whatever, now that their gigs are rarer than visits from Saint Nicholas, the Anglo-Irish troubadours have lined the stage with Christmas trees and pulled in 13,000, more than they generally attracted in their "heyday". A mood of glassy-eyed and occasionally wonderfully wistful celebration is uncorked with - but of course - Streams Of Whiskey.
The Pogues may be older, balder, and in most cases more abstinent than they were before, but their audience still know how to party like a riot. The crowd routinely bellow their way through song and hurl humorous insults at MacGowan, who instantly hands them back. Dirty Old Town is very naughtily dedicated to Manchester. "Roy Keane's a traitor!" he yells. When he then divulges how nice it is to be back in "Liverpool", even long-time sparring partner Spider Stacy stops blowing his tin whistle to join the chortles.
MacGowan is incorrigible, often unintelligible but, it's pleasing to report, nowhere near out of control. A man runs on to light his cigarettes, which don't make contact with his mouth. Intriguingly, he ignores the succession of alarming looking concoctions being placed in front of him. In fact, the only time he hits the hard stuff is when someone hurls a teddy bear which knocks a pint of clear liquid down him. He isn't quite delighted, but the singer's suddenly drenched visage forms a marvellous illustration of Rainy Night In Soho.
The hard-living persona is certainly not an act - you wouldn't want him to drive you home - but the props don't disguise the fact that MacGowan is sharper than he has been in some time (and certainly more than he was on their 2001 week of comeback dates). Dentally challenged, a bit portlier but surprisingly fresh-faced, his vocals inflict symbolic GBH on the Queen's English, as usual, but are spat out with somethig resembling focus. Meanwhile' a lessening of on-stage anarchy doesn't diminish the sense of lingering uproar in songs pitched halfway between The Dubliners and the Sex Pistols, or the sense of awe that greets compositions like A Pair Of Brown Eyes.
In light of the season of good will or possibly the peace process, the setlist overlooks their angrier, Republican-tinged songs in favour of favourites about love and death and lesser-known gems that emphasise the breadth of their canon. The acid house-tinged Yeah Yeah Yeah sounds eerily fresh; Thousands Are Sailing is passionately sung by Philip Chevron. There's an extra frisson when MacGowan sings, but The Pogues have a real strength in depth. Lined up in black suits, they look like gunslingers but their playing is as accomplished as their chemistry. Spider Stacy - modelling a brand new Faces barnet - is the closest we will ever get to a Keith Richards of the tin whistle. Original bassist Cait O'Riordan returns for the first time since 1986 to provide distinctive vocals on I'm A Man You Don't Meet Everyday.
MacGowan, depending on whether a song requires his vocals, shuffles on and off, which may double as an exercise regime. He excels - in his own inimitable way -- during Fairytale, waltzing around the stage with O'Riordan, who sings the words made famous by the late Kirsty MacColl, alleged "boating accident" victim. As the song ends, Stacy announces that MacColl was "murdered", demonstrating that the thirst for justice that once fired Pogues songs has merely lain dormant in their years away from the studio.
The big question - as rumours persist that MacGowan is again writing songs - is whether such grievances will fuel new material.
Whatever, as "snow" falls and genuine demands for encores ring around the venue, the band's long-starved public have never been hungrier for more.
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