POGUES STILL GET UP THEIR IRISH WITHOUT LEAD SINGER MACGOWAN
What do you do when your lead singer and primary songwriter, claiming "exhaustion," drops out on the eve of your first U.S. tour in over two years?
If you're the Anglo-Irish traveling roadshow known as the Pogues, you deputize friend and former leader of the Clash Joe Strummer to fill in for the missing-in-action Shane MacGowan. A colorful, Brendan Behanesque figure, MacGowan once proudly told a writer, "I haven't been sober since I was 14."
Whether due to "exhaustion" or too much Guinness, the MacGowan-less Pogues bravely went on with the show Wednesday at the Riviera Theater. Playing their idiosyncratic mix of rocked-up traditional Irish music laced with more than a little bit of rabble-rousing spirit, the group had the sold-out house enthralled from the first note.
"The man is sick and can't make it tonight," announced Strummer about MacGowan. "But I think you'll understand. Let's rock!"
And rock the Pogues did, in a 90-minute show that proved that a bit of rock 'n' roll attitude isn't incongruous with acoustic-oriented music. Drawing on material dating to their 1984 debut album, the eight musicians had the "moshers" crammed shoulder to shoulder in front of the stage pogoing up and down all night long, with a few revelers being passed hand to hand above the crowd to no apparent harm.
Hey, it's only Celtic-laced rock 'n' roll, and they liked it.
Without MacGowan to act as the focal point Wednesday, the rest of the Pogues took turns in the spotlight. Looking like a greying college professor, mandolinist Terry Woods sang of Oliver Cromwell's mistreatment of the Irish in "Young Ned of the Hill." With Spider Stacy's tin whistle and James Fearnley's accordion carrying the melody line, the rhythm section of bassist Darryl Hunt and drummer Andrew Ranken segued into a reggae "dub" break - a bit of disparate cross-culturalism only the Pogues could pull off.
Soft-spoken guitarist Philip Chevron sang lead on "Thousands Are Sailing" from 1987's "If I Should Fall from Grace with God," while Ranken stepped up front for a solo turn on "Boys from the County Hell" - one of the oldest tunes in the Pogues repertoire.
As for Strummer, he did just fine filling in on MacGowan originals like "Sayonara" and "The Sunnyside of the Street" from the group's most recent album, "Hell's Ditch." One of the founding fathers of British punk in the late '70s, Strummer's hoarse vocals and intense stage manner added an additional element of grit to the mix.
"There's nothing pre-recorded at this concert," he pointed out unnecessarily. "If something (expletive) breaks down, it (expletive) breaks down." To the crowd's delight, Strummer pulled out "London Calling" from the Clash songbook, which even with Fearnley's accordion, Woods' mandolin and Jem Finer's banjo retained its gritty core. Coincidentally, Strummer's old Clash mate Mick Jones will be appearing on the same stage Saturday with Big Audio Dynamite II.
Near the end of an extended encore that also featured Strummer reprising "I Fought the Law," Stacy took the mike for an unlikely Pogues' cover version - the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman." It was a gesture from rock's newer guard that maybe the old guard wasn't all bad after all.
Impressive in a brief opening set was London's Storm, made up of multi-instrumentalists James McNally and Tom McManamon, whose Celtic-rock hybrid style was cut from the same cloth as that of the Pogues.
Copyright 1986, The Chicago Tribune
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