Publication: San Jose Mercury News
Date Printed: Wednesday, October 9, 1991
Section: Living
Page: 5D
By: DAVID PLOTNIKOFF, Mercury News Music Writer

AS ROCK 'n' roll disasters go, the Pogues' current tour had the potential to make the Sex Pistols' notorious first-and-last American trek seem like a stroll down the garden lane. It could have been a recipe for certain failure: Take a legendary band, subtract the group's spiritual leader and principal songwriter and add the leader of an equally legendary, long-defunct band.

But the group's 90-minute, 24-song set Monday night at the Warfield in San Francisco was anything but a disappointment. Playing the first of two nights before an ecstatic full house, the sure-handed octet hammered home one of the most invigorating and deeply satisfying concerts of the year. It's not often you see the jaded old guard of the alternative-rock scene turn out in force for a major show and end up dancing jigs and reels on the tables.

The band's unique blend of sentimental Celtic folk and unreconstructed punk fury was dead-on perfect -- sweet, strong and just this side of rapturous. Shane MacGowan, the group's scowling, snaggletoothed front man, was absent -- suffering from what the band gingerly termed "battle fatigue." Judging from Monday night's impressive show of force, MacGowan, whose history of alcohol problems is well-documented, has every reason to worry about his future with the group. The underlying message seemed to be: "We can never replace you. But we can get by just fine without you."

Strummer's strong delivery

Joe Strummer, former lead singer and guitarist of the Clash, never tried to replace MacGowan. Wisely, he left the vocal chores on many of the band's oldest, most cherished numbers to the other players. When he did take the lead, his Cockney mouthful-of-mush vocal delivery proved to be every bit as commanding (and unintelligible) as MacGowan's thick-as-sod brogue. The band, which had once been alternately renowned and reviled for besotted shows that resembled bar brawls, was sober but not particularly smooth. Almost everything was rendered in a hard, fast, ham-fisted manner that was about as subtle as a kick in the gut. The set, comprising four albums and seven years' worth of material, underscored how far the band has evolved from its original hog-wild-in-the-pub sound. On the last two albums, "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" and last year's brilliant Strummer-produced "Hell's Ditch," the Pogues essentially abandoned the traditional folk forms that had been their foundation and began building a more idiosyncratic brand of Celtic soul.

Old, new meshed well On Monday night, the newer guitar-driven material such as "Thousands Are Sailing" and "Metropolis" dovetailed well with the old mandolin-and-whistle whirling-dervish numbers. With the bruising pace drummer Andy Ranken and bassist Darryl Hunt laid down, "Rain Street" and " The Sunnyside of the Street" -- two thunderous, upbeat numbers from the current "Hell's Ditch" album -- came across as being the highlights of the night.

It's been more than a decade since the Clash brought the Brit-punk firestorm to these shores. And many old-line fans (including this writer) had probably forgotten the emotional weight Clash songs carried back in the days when the band was widely thought to be the best rock 'n' roll group on the planet. It all came flooding back Monday night when Strummer led the Pogues storming through "London Calling" and "Straight to Hell." When the band fired up the encore with Clash classics "Brand New Cadillac" and "I Fought the Law," it was not unlike having the benevolent ghost of an old, departed friend pick you up and spin you around the rafters just for old times' sake.

Copyright 1991, San Jose Mercury News
All rights reserved

Your intrepid maintainer is DzM.