Festival: SHANE MACGOWAN West Belfast

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The organisers look worried. Everybody's wondering, "will he make it?" Rumours are flying: "Yer man was in Madden's, completely blocked already" ... "He'd 12 pints lined up, and he wants 24 hard-boiled eggs sent on to the stage" ... "Twenty-four? Jesus, I heard 40!" The egg mystery is never solved. But with Shane MacGowan there are many mysteries. Even to the crowd at the West Belfast Festival (Feile) - where he and the Popes are to play the first concert - the man's thirst is bewildering. How can he stay vertical and still sing? But he can. And he will this night, on a cramped stage on waste ground in the open air.

Meanwhile, local band Breag are on, pounding folk rock - in Irish. Half of West Belfast can hear the music in the still air. A man wanders along, a 12-pack of lager balanced on his head, African style. Near the entrance, shadowy figures are putting the finishing touches to a fire show as Gerry Adams arrives. It's his turf, after all, and he helped set up the Feile in the first place.

Breag finishes off as the fire show ignites. "Free all POWs" is the blazing message, and the crowd roars. Unseen, MacGowan has reached the stage, and all of a sudden, there's that voice rocketing around the enclosure. lt sounds like gravel being crushed under a door but he's actually singing "Where the streams of whiskey are flowing".

It's shattering. The words aren't very clear: the sound system can't cope, as few can. MacGowan looks frail, sometimes it's as if the mike- stand is actually supporting him. His face is pallid, a cigarette dangles, and his song "Sickbed of Cuchullain" seems pretty appropriate. So does "Nancy Whiskey". But the spotlights are behind him, so he's not easily seen. The Popes, too, are glimpsed only intermittently, demonic thrashing figures as the smoke machine goes out of control.

When not singing, MacGowan mutters into the mike. Curses? Prayers? Who knows. But "Pair of Brown Eyes" comes across beautifully. He sings "The Hippy Hippy Shake" twice, and "The Irish Rover", of course. But why won't he do "Dirty Old Town" when the audience is clamouring for it? Another MacGowan mystery. Now it's "Sally McLinane" - and he finishes, helped off the stage as the crowd goes wild.

"Mighty start to the Feile," everyone says. And so it is, so it is.