The Pogues at Brixton Academy, SW9

Publication: The Times

Author: David Sinclair

Date: December 22, 2008

Reviewed gig: London, Brixton Academy – December 18-20, 2008

Original Location: Link

The more Shane MacGowan messed things up, the more the audience seemed to enjoy his antics - and his great songs

Rating: * * * (out of five)

Following in the footsteps of Slade and Madness, the Pogues have become a seasonal fixture in recent years. Reunited again, they performed the first of three festive shows in Brixton to an audience steeped in a startling excess of alcoholic goodwill. The spike in the Academy bar takings can only be imagined and, as usual, Shane MacGowan looked as if he had made a personal contribution over and above the call of duty. Draped in a scruffy black overcoat and gripping a bottle of wine, the 50-year-old singer made his way towards the microphone with the unsteady gait of an old tramp as the band struck up the jaunty refrain of Streams of Whiskey. The merry sound of banjo, accordion, tin whistle and guitars all rattling along at a nimble pace was suddenly overlaid with a ghastly bronchial growling noise as MacGowan leant forward and delivered the opening lines.

While it has never been the most supple of instruments, his voice in middle age has turned into a death rattle. Even more of a liability was his general air of befuddlement. Time and again, the rest of the band, who are all serious and gifted musicians, were thrown into confusion by his antics. He completely lost his way during Greenland Whale Fisheries, forcing the others to vamp on one chord until the whistle player Spider Stacy stepped in to lead them back to the safety of the last verse. And when MacGowan started twirling the microphone in a bleary homage to Roger Daltrey, the bass player Darryl Hunt did not get out of the way quickly enough to avoid a painful thwack on the back of the hand. Most unforgivably of all the botched Fairytale of New York. Joined by Ella Finer and swathed in a downfall of “snow”, MacGowan fumbled his lines and almost derailed her performance.

The odd thing was that the more he messed things up, the more the audience enjoyed it. And whatever indignities he inflicted on his songs, they were still great songs. The crowd singalong during Ewan MacColl's Dirty Old Town was more in tune than MacGowan's effort. It was also unbelievably heartfelt. And by the time the band got to the closing knees-up of Fiesta, during which MacGowan and Stacy both took to bashing their heads repeatedly with tin trays, the carousing had spread to every corner of the building. Thus, by the strange alchemy of rock'n'roll, a performance of startling ineptitude was turned into an evening of contagious celebration.

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