Shane MacGowan Proves There's Life In the
Old Dog Yet
Publication: Ireland on Sunday
Author: Danny McElhinney
Date: December 19, 2004
It is surely fair to say that only the most die-hard fan - or foolhardy optimist - could have high expectations for a tour by the reconstituted Pogues in 2004. This is a band that hit a career-high in 1987 with Fairytale Of New York - a high-water mark they have never again come near to achieving.
The Pogues soldiered on after sacking Shane MacGowan in 1991, replacing him with Joe Strummer to no great commercial success or critical acclaim. MacGowan formed his own band, the Popes, with similar results.
A Pogues' reunion tour with MacGowan in 2001 was fairly well received but surely the sun was setting on the mercurial genius from Tipperary. A suspicion was forming that people were turning up to gigs, whether by The Pogues or the Popes, in case Shane's precarious mortality dictated it was the last ever.
Well, the foolhardy, the die-hards and the just plain curious turned out in great number at Glasgow's Academy to praise and to bury. The chant, 'there's only one Glasgow Celtic' morphs into 'there's only one Shane MacGowan' before the stage-lights turn green and the sound of The Clash's eerie Straight To Hell fill the hall to signal the hellion's entrance.
Shuffling to the microphone with as much purpose as he ever has, a plastic bottle of an unidentifiable beverage in hand, Shane crashes into Streams Of Whiskey, on time and in tune.
MacGowan signals to the side-stage engineer for more volume in his monitor speakers. He cares - it's a good sign. Andrew Rankin, The Pogues' drummer, once said MacGowan, can perform when he's wasted if he wants to perform'. It's difficult to gauge how 'wasted' he is but he clearly wants to perform. There are no cheat-sheets of lyrics in evidence and, on the extremely wordy Turkish Song Of The Damned, on which he or anyone could be forgiven for mislaying a word here and there, he doesn't.
The boy is doing good.
The bar is open but empty. The audience's focus is on the music. A mosh it may be but, while this crowd is willing the band on to silence the doubters, there's a collective wince as MacGowan cocks up the opening to A Pair Of Brown Eyes. Luckily, ex-bass player and former Mrs Elvis Costello, Cait O'Riordan, is on hand to steady the ship by re-counting in his entrance. It turns into an early highlight of the band's two-hour set. Looking stunning in black, Cait had earlier wowed the crowd with a beautiful rendition of A Man You Don't Meet Every Day, from The Pogues' breakthrough album, Rum, Sodomy And The Lash.
When Shane MacGowan leaves the stage in order for Philip Chevron to take over vocal duties on Tuesday Morning, an efficient minor hit for the band sans Shane, you realise that, despite the band's undoubted proficiency and energy, it will always be Shane's show.
The crowd breaks into another Celtic song. Many - such as tin whistle player Spider Stacey - are bedecked in the colours of the Bhoys from Parkhead. It's no place for the fainthearted and certainly not for a Rangers fan.
MacGowan returns and the band powers through Body Of An American, Old Main Drag and Dirty Old Town. Though a glass or bottle is never far from him, he drinks very little from either. The song introductions are mumbled and monosyllabic all night but, when the music kicks in, something, tonight at least, clicks in his head and Shane finds it within himself to deliver the goods. Sickbed Of Cuchulainn and a raucous - even by their standards - Irish Rover finish the main set. Fiesta and Sally MacLennane are fine aperitifs to the pure drop that is Fairytale Of New York.
Cait O'Riordan gets to share vocals on the song that was written with her in mind. Cait's marriage and her subsequent departure from the band mean that it will always be associated with the late Kirsty MacColl but O'Riordan gives an assured vocal performance. As she finishes the song waltzing with Shane MacGowan, just as Kirsty used to, this sober reviewer almost sheds a tear.
Even by Shane MacGowan's standards, it's not been an easy few years for him - what with broken limbs, infamously poor performances and relationship bust-ups. He needs a break of a positive nature. This Pogues reunion tour appears to be it.
On the strength of the performance on the first night of the tour in Glasgow, those with tickets for Dublin's Point Theatre can look forward to a revitalised Pogues.
The verdict as the crowd disperses is a whole-hearted thumbs up - and a fair bit of relief. It may not be easy for those close to Shane MacGowan to forgive his excesses but fans who have nights as good as this will always defend him. One hopes that his oft-predicted final demise is a long way off.