Off to the right of the stage, marked out in fluorescent tape, is a broad pathway leading into the wings of the Brixton Academy, with a couple of large taped arrows pointing stagewards. It's probably there to guide the roadies when they're humping gear in, but it's put to good use tonight when Shane MacGowan shuffles onstage uncertainly, as if an arrow might keep him on the straight and narrow. His bandmates have been greeted like homecoming heroes as they assemble, but that's nothing compared to the roar that rolls round the room when Shane staggers on. He's the drinking man's drinking man, someone blessed with the gift to wring beauty from what is clearly a tragic affliction.
Tonight's show is part of what the guitarist Phil Chevron describes as The Pogues' "first farewell tour", but there's scant valedictory element to it. Though fattened in places by a horn section, it's the same raucous riff-raff sound as always, the deceptively raggedy rustic-punk surface concealing a wealth of sly detail, particularly when Jem Finer's banjo, Terry Woods's cittern and Spider Stacy's tin whistle cut through the band's rowdy charge, dancing filigree lines around the riffs.
Though the band's undoubted icon, MacGowan takes frequent breaks, wandering back up the taped pathway to let his bandmates take the spotlight for a while. Spider Stacy does a lovely "Tuesday Morning", and Chevron, resplendent in pork-pie hat and what appear to be white spats, takes lead vocal on his own "Thousands Are Sailing", an anthemic crowd favourite. Another instrumental, Finer's "Metropolis", features a brash and throaty horn break of noir-ish manner, like a cop-show theme, while the arrangement of MacGowan's "London Girl" furnishes further evidence of the band's diversity, with its engaging cajun and ragtime overtones.
I confess I couldn't understand a word of MacGowan's inchoate between-songs patter, and I suspect he couldn't either. But as soon as the songs started he became a lucid and commanding presence, bringing to vivid life the rough-hewn charm and poignant melody of "A Pair of Brown Eyes", and restoring a gritty, populist appeal to folk standards like "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" and the climactic, rousing version of "Dirty Old Town", as heartwarming a community singalong as Ewan MacColl could have wished for his most famous song.