Marty Lipp checks in on The Pogues, on CD and in concert
The Pogues short spring 2007 U.S. tour tantalized fans. On one hand, it marked the release this past fall on Rhino Records of the trad-punk group's first five albums, but it also was another occasion for the band to reunite, seemingly to point toward a sustained second life for the band, which would be capped with a new album.
The March tour, though, sent mixed messages: the band performed like the well-oiled machine it had been in its heyday, but lead singer Shane MacGowan fell during a show in Boston, forcing a cancellation of their first New York show at The Roseland Ballroom and resulting in him singing from a wheelchair for the remaining shows.
MacGowan reportedly was on "analgesic" therapy for the injury, which seemed a strange irony for someone who has practically made a career of self-medication. Despite the thrill of having MacGowan back on stage with the Pogues, his vocals were practically indecipherable - a perfect storm of bad acoustics, a slurred singing style and maybe some of those analgesics. Seeing MacGowan wheeled out for the St. Patrick's Day show in Roseland in New York City was a reminder, though, of the indomitable spirit he and the band often convey in their songs: life may be tough, but I won't go down easy.
At Roseland, the Pogues delivered songs from across their first five albums, with MacGowan wheeled on and off when his vocal duties were not necessary. The band seemed undiminished after all these years (their five albums were, after all, in the faraway 1980s), playing with fire and exemplary musicianship.
Watching the semi-incapacitated MacGowan and his contrasting, spot-on bandmates called to mind the essential tension that makes the band so interesting. The Pogues have always lived this contradiction: on one hand playing with amazing speed and precision, yet at dead-center is MacGowan's fuck-it-all rambunctiousness, the embodiment of the hard-living characters in many of their songs.
The excellent liner notes from the Rhino re-releases confirm what fans already suspected: that the creative tension and divergent personalities in the band really did play out in the band's trajectory. What started as a bracing cocktail of punk nihilism and Irish rebelliousness on Red Roses for Me began to grow creatively with each album. Their third album, If I Should Fall From Grace with God, still stood firmly on the shoulders of the trad-punk bastard they sired, but it was also something apart, thanks to the band's musical adventurousness and MacGowan's scabrous lyricism.
By the band's fourth album, Peace and Love, MacGowan was experimenting with psychedelics and wanted the band to do a 30-minute trance cut, while the other members began to step into the vacuum he was leaving. By the last album, Hell's Ditch, even the songs MacGowan sang on - dwindling in number - had lost some of their urgency.
At the end of their time together, MacGowan - as evidenced at one show in New York at the Beacon Theater - could barely keep it together: he was missing cues, forgetting words. Not long after, he left the band and The Clash's Joe Strummer took on lead vocals. But the band's best days were essentially over - or it seemed.
At Roseland, the lubricated crowd was ecstatic; the moshing area in front of the stage seemed almost liquid, eddying like waves caught in a tide pool. It wasn't surprisingly though - it was St. Patrick's Day, there was a bar at hand and it was, after all, a Pogues concert - one that was too long in coming and might never happen again.
CDs available from cdroots.com
The band's web site: www.pogues.com