In 2002 Q Magazine listed The Pogues as “One of the fifty bands to see before you die”
A little late maybe; but last Thursday at Bonns Museumsplatz I got around to the task, and, whilst it would perhaps be optimistic to hope that Punk-Folk was well, was it still alive?
It’s 8pm and I’ve been standing in the Photo-pit with a monitor blasting music directly into my ear for half an hour. There’s a plastic duck sitting on top of a backstage speaker that I’ve now ‘shot’ three times with my camera just to pass the time. Roadies shuffle back and forth onstage; we’re half an hour late and no band. Fans I’d spoken to on the train from Cologne were enthusiastically talking about the Band but I had the impression that a show stood or fell on the physical condition of singer and renowned drinker Shane MacGowan. Now, as MacGowan finally took the stage I feared his appearance didn’t bode well for the evening.
The song ‘Streams of Whiskey’ seemed appropriate as he rocked hesitantly from foot to foot, hands gripping the mike stand which seemed as much a means of support as a means of amplification. Ostensibly about Brendan Behan, but the slur in MacGowans voice gave the lyrics an ironic twist.
“Is that really the lead singer?” I was asked by a non-plussed photographer. “Has he had a stroke?”* Asked another later. His face seems odd. The only comfort I could give was the words another spectator had given me to the. same vexed questions – “I’m sure he will get better”, and, amazingly, he was right. Following a promising version of his own ‘Pair of Brown Eyes’ MacGowan left the stage. The band played a lively jig and it should have been better without MacGowan’s faltering participation – but it wasn’t. You see, The Pogues without MacGowan are just another Irish Pub Band. A good one to be sure, but good doesn’t sell millions of discs or get you a Tour Stage playing to thousands of people. It’s a lesson that was learned as far back as 1999 when The Band tried to make a go of it without their main man. Drunken defiance is an integral part of the Pogues charisma. The plastic beer glasses that regularly fly across the audience in front of stage are a testimony to that. The fans understand. Plenty of bemused faces that say “Well, that’s Shane, bless him. He’ll come right in the end”.
By the time MacGowan has been back and sung ‘Kitty’ and ‘Sunny Side of the Street’ it starts to seem that all those positive thinkers are going to be right. Ultimately the fans know the Man and I hope he appreciates the trust they put in him to get it together onstage.
Certainly, by the time he gets to Eric Bogle’s ‘Waltzing Matilda’ the voice is loud, if not always clear. Stories of MacGowan having new teeth prove to be a little confusing since whilst he certainly doesn’t have the set that frightened small children from his past (seemingly an accident with a brick wall from many years ago). Indeed he doesn’t seem to have any upper teeth for the show that I can see. Maybe that accounts for the slur in his voice? His participation in events has improved though and, whilst this is by no means the angry sounding young man from the eighties his vocal chords can still pack an almighty punch. The crowd are more than willing to help out as they chant “and mother wakes me early in the morning” and clap enthusiastically along. ‘Thousands are Sailing’ goes down well without MacGowan but truth to tell it’s only when the Man himself is onstage that the fission of expectancy/threat/tension is present. With Ewan Macoll’s ‘Dirty Old Town’ he would be hard pressed to disappoint of course. It’s a number that has become almost synonymous with the Band through MacGowans sneering vocal. “I’ll cut you down, like an old dead tree” he threatens, and one can almost see the axe in his hands.
‘Bottle of Smoke’ with its breathtaking tempo was a number where I thought he would falter, but the man was by now in his stride and so was the song, glorious as ever. ‘The Deathbed of Cuchulainn’ was further proof that MacGowan was back on form. Who could resist a line like ‘When you’ve pi**ed yourself in Frankfurt and got sick down in Cologne’ sung in Bonn? Not something you would hear from a Bläck Föös concert for sure.
After barely an hour MacGowan was announcing the last number and thanking everyone for coming. Usually I would assume this was a short break before encores, but tonight, who could be sure? The fans could of course. They know their Man. Encores, including a favourite of mine from an all time favourite disc (yes, I bought it many years ago on plastic!) ‘Sally MacLennane’ off of ‘Rum, Sodomy & The Lash’ and of course ‘Irish Rover’. Spider Stacy had by this time put down his tin whistle in favour of hitting himself over the head with a tin plate (can you get these in specialist instrument shops, along with washboard waistcoats I wonder?
So there we have it. The Band made it to the end of the show and rather than run out of gas it’s main man actually seemed to step on the gas pedal. The many wearers of green T_shirts went away with smiling faces. They believed Shane MacGowan would deliver on the night and the enthusiasm of the lady I spoke to on the train down to Bonn was well founded. I think it’ll be a great show, you’ll enjoy it” she had said. They have faith in their band these Pogues fans. It’s an optimism that seems to almost radiate onto the stage, and could prove a life saver for The Pogues and especially their main man – someone with a style you don’t meet everyday.
* Fellow Pogue Phillip Chevron has since pointed out to me ‘Shane has not had a stroke’ – “But even if he was suffering from six life threatening illnesses, people would say he was drunk”