The Pogues, Brixton Academy, London

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The Independent Culture

There are occasional rumbles as to the point of the Pogues' now-annual Christmas reunions (and St Patrick's Day US equivalents). In the seven years since the joyous release of seeing Shane MacGowan return to his old band at the Manchester Academy, these chaotic, maudlin occasions have too often relied on the crowd's memories of what MacGowan might have been singing, if he could only remember his name.

Pogues gig reviews have often resembled medical bulletins on the alcohol intake of their errant singer-songwriter. Fingers have also been pointed at the failure of a man with a great lyric gift to record a single new song in 11 years, content, it has seemed, to hold court in north London's Boogaloo bar until he falls off his stool. But this is a man living the life he wants, with his great work completed – every boozing poet's dream. And any complaints about the Pogues rehashing that songbook again are blasted to tinder tonight.

MacGowan is in committed vocal form, whether grating a roar over his broken teeth on "Fare Thee Well", or contemplating the "world of women and pain" behind it. Despite the pints of clear liquid drunk from a tray, he is fit enough to engage in whirling jigs with right-hand man and tin-whistle player Spider Stacy. He sounds like a man who believes in his songs, and looks like a man who still lives them. The Pogues, meanwhile, have become a crack London-Irish show band, with a foot still in punk attitude. For all the traditional folk whirl of tin whistle, mandolin, accordion and banjo, their beat still sounds like a hundred biscuit tins cracked on happily drunk heads, as Stacy and MacGowan will later prove. Their brass section offer the Celtic soul, and celebration, that Van Morrison long ago retreated from.

They dig deep into their old albums, MacGowan fondly considering the dreams of hopeless lives, rather than lamenting them. The romanticism of these songs explains their appeal to as many rowdy women as men. "Lullaby of London" is soon followed by "Rainy Night in Soho", where MacGowan sings of stumbling into a love who's "a measure of all my dreams" with gruff tenderness. "Fairytale of New York" remains heartbreaking, even before MacGowan takes red-dressed stand-in singer Ella Finer for a waltz, his shoulders dusted by fake snow. They can come back next year.

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