It’s two years after the Pogues’ now rescinded “farewell” tour, and Shane MacGowan appears refreshed in an unexpected way. The traditional jug of a nameless liquid unlikely to be water appears by his side, and no one would suggest he’s sober.
MacGowan torpedoed the Pogues’ initial success, of course, with such destructive drinking they had to sack him in 1991. Their reunion a decade later as a band existing only for nostalgic, lucrative Christmas celebrations such as tonight’s is his fault. But against all expectations, MacGowan is amusing, strong-voiced and in command of his powers. He proceeds to put himself at the faithful service of one of the finest songbooks of the 1980s.
“A Pair Of Brown Eyes” is a case in point. One of MacGowan’s own finest lyrics of taproom poetry, he clearly sketches the smoky scene as he “heard the sounds of long ago”, sentimental romance and wanderlust, the longing for love and somewhere else, overwhelming him in his cups.
Even in MacGowan’s committed rendition, you’d have to listen hard to hear the memories of battlefield horror also swimming in the narrator’s head. The Pogues’ songs weren’t only his, and he does equal justice to guitarist Philip Chevron’s bitter lament of Irish immigration to New York, “Thousands Are Sailing”, and its lovely description of drunks “turning round and round on Broadway like the first men on the moon.” Ireland’s American diaspora is a surprisingly frequent theme, even before we get to their biggest hit. Though MacGowan may like to differ, this is a London band as much as an Irish one.
The reviving punk momentum they gave to Irish folk music still powers them. Banjo and mandolin are the steady rhythmic heart of songs such as Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town”, with its old scenes of love and work by factory gates, and a swirl of Spider Stacey’s tin whistle at the end. MacGowan offers rebel shrieks and running commentary. “At least some people know how to dress for dinner,” he greets the suited brass section, his hissing cackle leaking through his toothless mouth like static.
In the crowd, some are predictably paralytic long before “Fairytale of New York” gives us pop’s most sentimental and true Christmas tale. But MacGowan still stands tall at the end, reminding us this band are something better than an excuse for a Christmas piss-up.