Pogues’ MacGowan offers up bittersweet ‘Whiskey’

Publication: The Boston Herald

Author: Jim Sullivan

Date: March 21, 2009

Reviewed gig: Boston, MA, House of Blues; March 20, 2009

Original Location: Link

The Pogues played a packed House of Blues on Friday night, offering up a rowdy mix of songs both angry and wrenching, vicious and sentimental, with sweet blistering melody lines from the mandolin, cittern, banjo and accordion. It is doubtful anyone left without a smile.

But it’s complicated when you consider singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan, the Pogues and what they mean today. In the mid-1980s, the octet stumbled into something completely fresh: an at-the-time unimaginable fusion of acoustic Celtic music and punk rock. MacGowan was a London-based, second-generation Irish bloke who’d once fronted a punk band (the Nips) and was looking to broaden his horizons. He found that by exploring both the past and present - often through glasses of whiskey. It fueled songs about the past (“Poor Paddy,” “Greenland Whale Fisheries”) and the present (“Streams of Whiskey,” “A Pair of Brown Eyes”). The drink? It’s been a source of inspiration and conflict.

MacGowan is a living legend by virtue of the fact that he manages to both live and function. The problem with the Pogues of today is this: It’s all about yesterday. The group’s pretty much frozen in the ember of its glory days, like the dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park.”

Keep in mind, those dinosaurs do roar to life. As do the Pogues.

The Celtic rockers tour the UK around Christmas and the States around St. Patrick’s Day.

MacGowan wrote and recorded post-Pogues songs in the 1990s (with the Popes) but those never surface with the Pogues. And any talk of new Pogues songs is just that: talk.

Friday, the opener, “Streams of Whiskey,” set the tone and subsequent bad-boy ravers, “Boys From County Hell,” “Sally Maclennane” and “The Sickbed of Cuchulainn” retained their exuberant verve. Violence, cursing, bonhomie and celebration-beyond-the-grave were tossed into the Pogues mixing bowl. The occasional sad song, such as “Thousands Are Sailing” and “Rainy Night in Soho,” crept in to break your heart.

What was off? Not much. The band is sharp, fluid and dexterous. MacGowan’s vocals - as slurred as his speech may be - were relatively clear, albeit husky. The band - seven across the front, with drummer Andrew Ranken at the rear - did not miss a beat.

The Pogues of today are not unlike the Ramones in their latter years. Their best is well behind them (creatively speaking), but in concert the octet plays those early songs for keeps. It’s like being transported 20 years back in time. When it all closed with “Fiesta” - with whistle player Spider Stacy and MacGowan whacking their foreheads with tin trays - it was stoopid, festive fun. And it concluded a complex and conflicted night.

At the House of Blues, Friday night.

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Transcribed and made available by Zuzana.