MINUS SHANE MACGOWAN, POGUES LACK THE OLD SPIRIT
The rockers' early St. Patrick's Day celebration felt more like a wake. Sunday at the Beacon Theater, Broadway and 74th Street, Manhattan. Shoulders opened.
A DECADE ago, London's Pogues cobbled together a unique, fervid stew of Gaelic traditionalism, heated punk bluster and dreamy poetic license. Playing an irreverent collection of acoustic and electric instruments, the Anglo-Irish sextet managed to revitalize elements of folk music for a generation previously lost to the stolid joys of older artists.
The Pogues' current album, Waiting for Herb (Elektra), is its first without Shane MacGowan, the brilliant but dissipated singer and main songwriter who was drummed out of the group for health reasons (his and theirs) after engineering a stylistic redirection on 1990's Hell's Ditch. To the others' credit, the new record managed a return to more familiar terrain without serious incident. But the Pogues have always made their way as a great live act, and Sunday's timely appearance at the Beacon was an important test of the group's post-MacGowan mettle.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to gauge from this futile effort; Spider Stacy, the tin-whistle-playing co-founder who has taken over the lead singer's role, could muster nothing more than a raspy croak. If the band's lifeless playing was a considerate attempt to gear down for his benefit, it was to no avail. Only the tender "Dirty Old Town" was low-key enough to help.
Watching the Pogues stagger through this disheartening display, one could envision a dilapidated version of the young boxer on the cover of 1989's "Peace and Love" album stubbornly taking a beating rather than falling down and acknowledging the end of a once-glorious career. MacGowan, much to his personal detriment, was able to work his appalling dissolution into powerfully real art; Stacy has no such conviction or skill. Throughout the 80-minute set, his courage in carrying on despite his failing voice occasionally gave way to a sheepish shrug. (Judging by the audience's enthusiasm, it was enough that he was there, and that the songs were familiar. Like other transcendent cultural icons, the Pogues are, for many, beyond reproach.)
Guitarist Philip Chevron brought down the house with his emigration ballad, "Thousands Are Sailing," and joined voices with Stacy on "Tuesday Morning." Drummer Andrew Ranken took a lead vocal as well, but the feckless band's problems extended past its singing. Even with two saxophones and a ramshackle burst of energy, "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" fell far short of the tight soul strut it is on record. The only points at which the Pogues fully found their feet were instrumentals - breakdowns featuring fiddle or mandolin or accordion - that settled into the familiar tones of Irish tradition.
The opening set by the Austin, Texas, quartet Shoulders was an ideal
warmup for the Pogues. Led by guttural singer Michael Slattery, the raucously
amplified acoustic group - imagine a street band celebrating Mardi Gras,
Halloween and St. Patrick's Day simultaneously - stoked its bonfire with
Kurt Weill and sea chanteys alike; its literary lyrics ran the gamut from
Hemingway to Hammett.
Your intrepid maintainer is DzM.