IN YOUR EAR
It's hard to imagine the Pogues without Shane MacGowan, the band's hard-drinking lead singer, principal songwriter and shamrock shaman. But their March 5 appearance at Tokyo Bay NK Hall showed no shame in Pogues without Shane.
Of course it helped to have Joe Strummer, formerly of the Clash, filling in for MacGowan, who was sidelined from the band's six-show Japan tour for reported "health reasons."
Sad as it would be if MacGowan is permanently out of the band, the recent show was actually better than many of the past ones during which he would wander off stage whenever another band member sang lead. Strummer was a low-keyed leader, happy to drop into the background and play guitar or even bang some percussion instrument when he wasn't singing. He seemed to stumble through the words of the opener, "If I Should Fall From Grace With God," but hit his stride as the band moved onto songs from their most recent album, the Strummer-produced Hell's Ditch.
And he was generous about allowing the others some time at the microphone. So from behind his drum kit, Andrew Ranken sang MacGowan's part on the beat-heavy "Cotton Fields," and when cittern player Terry Woods delivered his anti-Oliver Cromwell protest song, "Young Ned Of The Hill," the aptly-named Strummer furiously thrashed his electric guitar, helping turn the song into a Sandinista-era Clash-style jam.
The music that established the Pogues' career--traditional-sounding Irish songs played on acoustic instruments with the spirit and intensity of punk--was of course well represented. Numbers like tin whistle player Spider Stacy's instrumental "The Repeal Of The Licensing Laws" (introduced by Strummer as the "most important song written in England in the last 200 years") and the Chieftains-like "Medley" benefited from Jem Finer's banjo and James Fearnley's accordion.
But the Pogues aren't exclusively ale-hall rowdies, and their past couple of albums have been flavored with accents from other parts of the world. During the concert Finer played a hurdy-gurdy to recreate the eeriness of "Tombstone" and "Turkish Song of the Damned."
Strummer rewarded the many Clash fans in attendance with a few of the group's best-loved numbers, such as "London Calling," which was diminished in power not one iota by the mostly acoustic backing. The crowd went wild--a little too wild, in the case of at least one punk partisan, who was ejected by a gaggle of security guards.
A highlight of the show was "Straight To Hell," the Clash song about the plight of the Amer-Asian children of the Vietnam War. Bathed in red light and enshrouded in fog, Strummer sang with a voice strained with emotion, while Ranken tapped out a pattering beat on the drums and Finer cranked his resonating hurdy-gurdy.
All eyes were on Strummer for that song, but the Pogues displayed ample stage presence. Stacy often assumed the leadership, bantering with Strummer or trying out a few words of Japanese on the audience. When he wasn't blowing his whistle he was banging a tamborine or dancing frantically in place. Fearnley raced back and forth across the stage on every song, manhandling his accordion like some bass player in a heavy metal band.
Guitarist Philip Chevron provided one of the evening's most touching moments when he started singing "Thousands Are Sailing" to the accompaniment of just his acoustic guitar. Soon the full band was playing a stirring rendition of the Pogues' tribute to generations of Irish emigrants.
Strummer brought punk piano ace Johnny Fingers on board for a rousing "I Fought The Law," and then Stacy took the mike to close out with set with "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah," the Pogues take on Motown. Bass player Darryl Hunt endowed the proceedings with a reggae pulse and interjected some dub vocal quotes from Peter Green's "Oh Well" and the Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad."
For the first encore, Ranken came out front to sing the traditional
tune "The Star of the County Down," with the rest of the band harmonizing
on the chorus. Then "Hell's Ditch," with Woods plucking skipping, balalaika-like
notes from his cittern, and the Clash version of "Brand New Cadillac,"
before Strummer shouted "Fiesta!" and the band wailed into the song of
that name. Complete with horns, lightning tempo and lyrics half in Spanish,
"Fiesta" is a perfect example of the Pogues' assimilation of music from
beyond the Emerald Isle. They played the song with all the enthusiasm it
implies before ending with a mock collapse, brought to their knees by an
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