The Pogues @ Manchester Central
RETURNING with The Pogues for their annual festive stumble around Arenas, it’s not merely two fingers up to fate that Shane MacGowan is here playing live, it’s a miracle he’s alive full-stop. A man who doesn’t so much have a ‘blood type’ as a ‘proof rating’, he’s cultivated a reputation for turning up slaughtered to work…really, pop’s gain was air traffic control’s loss.
The Pogues’ raucous Manchester Central date was both an advert for and against drink. On the one hand, MacGowan lurches around like Pete Doherty’s granddad, flouting the smoking ban, his vocal slurry rendering his piquant, eloquent lyrics unintelligible. But on the other, like karaoke and operating heavy machinery, you wouldn’t want to attend the gig sober, as an up-for-it throng sang along, terrace chanted ‘THERE’S ONLY ONE SHANE MacGOWAN!’ and pogoed and jigged like burly, Ben Sherman-clad leprechauns.
It would be easier to crack the Da Vinci Code than understand one syllable MacGowan utters in between songs: the only word I clearly hear all night is ‘gonorrhea’ which is ironic, considering that when halfcut, it’s pretty tricky to say.
And yet, the reason the audience are here for anything more than morbid ambulance-chasing is simple: for all the excess smokescreens MacGowan’s role as a songwriting titan, a maverick who first fused punk-dynamics to traditional Irish folk.
Beginning with Streams of Whiskey, MacGowan takes a while to warm up, with his growl resembling an angry hoover. Fortunately, he’s safety-netted by an adept, tourniquet-tight band, not to mention an arena that knows every word. The later foolproof likes of Dirty Old Town, penned by Ewan MacColl about his childhood in Salford, shines, as does an affecting Rainy Night In Soho.
At one point, the less babyfaced shambles tromps offstage leaving tin whistle-player – not to mention occasional translator - Spider Stacy to belt out a zealous rendition of Tuesday Morning.
Still, at this time of year, it’s Fairytale of New York – currently residing at number 12 in the Top 40 on downloads alone – that elicits mass hugs and kisses. Given that in the past, the Kirsty MacColl role has been filled by Katie Melua (who offered the most politely inoffensive, beige-coated middle-class trilling of ‘you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot’ imaginable), it’s heartening that tonight McGowan’s partner in rhyme is the superior Ella Finer, daughter of banjo player and guitarist Jem. It’s an indisputable classic that’s accompanied by drifting artificial snow but crackles with real heart.
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