POP: GOD'S SLOT
Once a Pogue, now a Pope, Shane MacGowan is a past master of the art of falling apart, writes Miranda Sawyer
There's something in the air tonight. It's not just the hero-hungry anticipation that accompanies Shane MacGowan's every appearance; it's not just the manly smell of overheated armpits; it's not cigarette smoke, nor the amiably punchy crowd atmosphere. It's flatulence. Guinness-fuelled and all-permeating, a pungent reminder of how most people here have been spending their Sunday afternoon.
The audience - mostly scruffy, pissed, Irish ex-pats who'd use 'trendy' as an insult - don't notice anything as poncy as ambience. They're here for the beer and the cheer. The one they give MacGowan when he shambles, bullish to centre-stage, is of open-hearted devotion. Some might say he's ugly, some might say he's all washed up, post-Pogues - but to venture either opinion here would be suicide. His crowd love him, and very fiercely.
Such wanton adoration is difficult for MacGowan to deal with. He's too shy: his first words are the sarcastic 'Hello Eastbourne, it's nice to be back', and as his band The Popes - middle-aged men with cartoon hairstyles - slam into the old Pogues' number 'Streams of Whiskey', a spinning, skidding Irish jig weened on meths and self-abuse, MacGowan snarls and grumbles into the microphone, body twisted with fright, shades glued on, unable to look the audience in the eye. Still, they're all too busy dancing and beating each other up to notice.
Shane's dressed all in black, his hair stuck up anyways, snaggle-toothed, jug -eared, beer-bellied, beautiful. You can't understand a word he says: his attempt at a limerick - 'I once knew a girl from Kilkenny' - is lost in feed-back and slurring, his inter-song banter reduced to 'waroorasnarrooarra', like a punch-drunk boxer. Except, with Shane, there's no punch about it. But his singing voice has never sounded better. He loses things badly during his first attempt at 'Dirty Old Town' and the old Rebels' number 'The Rising of the Moon', singing so flat the rest of the band can only shake their heads in awe, but aside from such woeful key-wandering he hits the notes truly every time, whether he's crooning, growling or squawking.
The Popes play stoically behind their leader. They're a little lumpen, too careful on the Irish numbers, better on the open rock and roll of new LP The Snake; unable to capture the crazy uninhibitedness of The Pogues, who had a man who played the tea-tray with his head. Still, there's plenty of chin-high kicks from Paul McGuinness on guitar to keep things lively - and Kieren O'Hagan the banjo player,a dead ringer from Animal from The Muppets, is never less than entertaining, whether he's foot-on-monitor rocking, or tossing his Hair Bear barnet in inner agony.
And perhaps The Popes' stalwart nature is what Shane now needs. His years with The Pogues, from 1983 to 1990, might have produced five memorable LPs - Red Roses From Me; Rum, Sodomy and the Lash; If I Should Fall From Grace With God (the best); Peace And Love; Hell's Ditch - but their relentless touring schedule coupled with his own, equally relentless drinking and drug-taking, also led to his hospitalisation. Your tether's end must be long gone for you to paint yourself blue and fall from a moving train.
The Popes' unflappability allows MacGowan some space, lets rip his soul-grouting voice, gives his unsurpassable song-writing talent the room to breathe. New songs like 'That Woman's Got Me Drinking', 'Church of the Holy Spook', 'The Donegal Express' (chorus: 'I might have fucked your missus but I never fucked your daughter') are as strong as any he's penned before, and their big, driving, heaven-bound feel contrasts poignantly with the scrabbly, tin-kicking city-shittiness of 'Lullaby of London' or 'Nancy Whiskey'. His interpretation of Gerry 'Baker Street' Rafferty's 'Her Father Didn't Like Me Anyway' (last line altered to: 'her father was a right cunt anyway') spat and soared.
This was a jumping, thumping, glass-strewn gig, attended by numerous ex-Pogues and Joe Strummer, highlighted by a guest appearance by Brian Robinson (formerly of Thin Lizzy) for a gruesomely stadium rendition of 'Whiskey in the Jar'. The pace was too uniform, I'd have liked him to play more ballads. But even during the full-pelt attack of 'Poor Paddy', the glorious triumph of 'The Irish Rover', the lurching stumble-bum romance of Shane MacGowan still clawed at the heart.
Shane MacGowan and The Popes play tonight at the Community Centre,
Shinrone, Eire (0505 47364) Their new single 'The Song With No Name' is
released on 5 Dec.
Your intrepid maintainer is DzM.