Beauty And The Bleary

Publication: Telegraph

Author: ???

Date: December 22, 2004

Section: Arts

Original Location: Link

The London-Irish were out in force, jamming the outer bars. Inside, a curtain protected the band's equipment, as much from flying Guinness as from prying eyes.

In front of the equipment sat a row of seven microphones. Behind the middle one, a bar stool - the natural habitat of the Pogues' visionary leader, Shane MacGowan.

The sight of MacGowan hobbling towards centre-stage, aged only 46 but looking half-embalmed, was most sobering. Indeed, several of the band - re-assembled in full for the first time after a partial reunion in 2001 - appeared ravaged beyond their years.

These black-suited casualties struck up their first furious jig, MacGowan indecipherably snarled the words to Streams of Whiskey, and the place erupted.

It is easy to forget how popular the Pogues' "punk Dubliners" music was in the late 1980s. Anachronistically earthy in that glossiest of pop decades, they were million-sellers. MacGowan became the anti-Simon Le Bon. His subsequent demise into disinterest and drink/drugs incapacity only seems to have multiplied his legend.

To hearty applause, the singer greeted instrumental breaks by whirling his microphone lead unsteadily or conducting like a drunk to a pub jukebox.

After a few songs, he sauntered off, leaving tin whistler Spider Stacey to sing one. Original bassist Caitlin O'Riordan rejoined the band for the first time in 18 years, singing I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day, and providing harmonies for a lovely Pair of Brown Eyes.

It was just like the old days - boozy, chaotic, all emotional singalongs and wayward dancing. MacGowan's enunciation got better the more he drank. He sang Dirty Old Town with a brilliant rasp.

He succeeded in balancing a pint of colourless liquid - realistically, gin and tonic - on his head, and was lucid enough to remove it before it fell. By the boisterous encores of Sally McLennane and The Irish Rover, he seemed equal to anything.

Given the presence of both Christmas trees and O'Riordan, the task before him was, clearly, Fairy Tale of New York (he originally wrote this much-loved seasonal duet with O'Riordan in mind, not the late Kirsty MacColl). Their rendition was bleary but beautiful.

Fake snow cascaded, and, terrifyingly, MacGowan led O'Riordan through a frantic waltz. A horn section appeared for a triumphant Fiesta. The crowd echoed its mariachi refrain all the way to Brixton tube. Even in a year of historic reunions, this one was truly memorable.

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