Live: The Pogues, Houston
It wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day but Thursday night sure felt like it – or something like a wild, drunken Irish party – as the legendary Pogues rolled into town to play at the House of Blues. This punk-Irish-rock unit hasn’t visited Texas in 20 years but here they were in all their glory and best of all, they were led by dissipated frontman Shane MacGowan, singing and smoking and drinking and slurring right where he belongs.
To see MacGowan in the flesh is to wonder how this man is alive at all. Obviously damaged by decades of boozing and whatever, MacGowan is a serious mess. But he is also the brilliant songwriter who created the great songs that the Pogues are famous for. And they rolled out one after another Thursday night: “The Broad Majestic Shannon,” “Sunny Side of the Street,” “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” “A Rainy Night in Soho” and so on. As I said, brilliant – and MacGowan, magically, sang with growing strength as the nearly two-hour set wore on. Was it the frenzy of the (obviously) alcohol-fueled crowd, or was it the glass of liquid he kept sipping (gin? vodka? water?) during the set?
The band, led by the fiery theatrics of accordionist James Fearnley and singer/tin whistle player Spider Stacy, roared through the songs with fire and passion. “The Body of An American,” which starts slowly and reels into a joyous Irish romp, was a highlight, as was Stacy’s lead vocal turn on the Pogues’ biggest hit, “Tuesday Morning.” Philip Chevron also shone, on his “Thousands Are Sailing,” and former Steeleye Span member Terry Woods played a variety of instruments to add authentic atmosphere.
The attention was mainly focused on MacGowan. When he shambled onstage, he was in constant motion – drinking, smoking – and when he talked between songs it was impossible to understand what he was saying. But when he sang, it was with authority. In the homestretch, MacGowan simply announced the title of the song the band was going to play next, and each earned a roar: “Dirty Old Town,” “Sick Bed of Cuchulainn,” “The Irish Rover.” In the first of two encores, the Pogues tore it up with the stomper “Sally MacLennane.” They came out for a second encore with “Fiesta,” with Stacy smashing a cookie pan on his head for percussion and MacGowan pouring something into his mouth (and face and shirt) straight from a bottle.
The evening that had a wild end had a great beginning – with opening act Justin Townes Earle (son of Steve) delivering a charming set of old chestnuts and heartfelt originals, all highlighted by his lightning fingerpicking on guitar. This kid is great, maybe better than his old man, and I think one day he’s going to write the songs to prove it. Catch him live, if you can. And if you get a chance to see the Pogues, do that too. I am glad I did, that’s for sure.
YouTube: The Pogues at Stubb’s in Austin, 10/28
YouTube: The Pogues at House of Blues Houston, 10/29