Lightning strikes twice in Chicago with The Pogues
With a rare two-night stint at Chicago's Riviera Theatre last week, The Pogues proved not only the lasting legacy of their music, but also that after a quarter-decade of making music together they're still as relevant as ever, even without any new material. The Pogues, a band that infused traditional Irish folk music with late '70s UK punk rock throughout most of the '80s, were, and still are, a highly influential act that have helped make successful careers for other bands following in their footsteps, such as Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, The Tossers and countless others. But when the signature line-up of Spider Stacy, Philip Chevron, James Fearnley, Terry Woods, Jem Finer, Andrew Ranken, Darryl Hunt and troubled poet and vocalist Shane MacGowan parted ways in '91 it seemed doubtful that the band would ever reunite - much less see MacGowan make it alive to the new millennium, considering his mounting problems with drug and alcohol abuse.
In 2001, however, this original line-up did reconvene for a handful of high-profile spot gigs in the UK, Japan and Spain, where they not only sold-out huge venues, but received universal accolades from the press. It wasn't until this time last year, though, that this classic line-up would grace a stage together in the Midwest for an incendiary performance at the Congress Theatre in Chicago.
Their show last Thursday (the second of their two-night stay in The Windy City) saw the band in similar form as last year with the instrumentation from the sprawling band in top form; running through jigs, reels and rockers that had the packed floor sporadically pogoing and moshing in pandemonium. The band opened with one of their many signature songs "Streams of Whiskey" as the pasty and bloated MacGowan shuffled out clad in black top hat, shades and jacket. Whether it was from the many years of self-abuse or backstage bender right before the show, the dazed-looking singer teetered back-and-forth behind the mic delivering an almost unintelligible run of slurs, which were eventually sorted out when the band joined in for the chorus, " I am going, I am going any which way the wind might be blowing. I am going, I am going where streams of whiskey are flowing." Shane has become something of mythical legend for fans, artists and music scholars alike. Combining the lyrical beauty and wit in the grand tradition of many Irish poets before him with a downward-spiraling, destructive lifestyle that makes Keith Richards look like Richard Simmons, the allure of this artist is something akin to a four train pile-up set to a Vivaldi score.
MacGowan was, indeed, a beautiful wreck. The only words that were intelligible during the toothless 50 year-old's banter in between numbers were the expletives (no doubt muffled further by the venues sound system), and his gruff, raspy voice would certainly have the judges from American Idols running for the hills. Despite this, however, there was still a fascinating allure to the way his voice poured like thirty-year old bourbon from an antique bottle on folk ballads like "Kitty," from their 1984 debut Red Roses For Me, and the beautiful "A Rainy Night In Soho," while also offering the burning sting of Kentucky white-lightning on the number "Dirty Old Town" and the accordion & banjo fueled "If I Should Fall From the Grace With God" and "Bottle of Smoke," where MacGowan screeched like a banshee from Hell. The band also ran through many other favorites such as the spirited numbers "The Sunnyside of the Street," "The Irish Rover" and the punch-drunk Irish-flavored punk anthem "Sally Maclennane," which tin-whistle player Spider Stacy graciously dedicated to Chicago's own Irish punk offshoot The Tossers.
MacGowan wasn't the only lead vocalist of the evening, though, as Stacy led a couple, including "Tuesday Morning," while drummer Andrew Ranken turned in an earthy vocal delivery on "The Star Of The County Down." One of the many highlights of the evening was when zoot-suited guitarist Philip Chevron (who was diagnosed with advanced throat cancer last year and was forced to stop touring with the band last June) turned in a commanding performance for his song "Thousands Are Sailing."
After twenty-five years as a band The Pogues are musically not only still at the top their game, but for their rare Chicago appearances - this year and last - this important act proved that lightning can, in fact, strike twice. Here's hoping that 2009 proves three-times-a-charm.
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