The Pogues, Brixton Academy, London: Drink problem fails to prevent rowdy resurrection

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The Independent Culture

Drink was nearly the Pogues' downfall again last night. Beer spilled on the mixing desk nearly short-circuited their latest Christmas comeback to the capital, a tradition since their 2001 reunion. But the singer Shane MacGowan was not about to be defeated by the liquid which has been his life blood, and his band eventually appeared, to redoubled cheers.

MacGowan was of course one of punk rock's original, wide-eyed lost boys. With the Pogues, he married the movement's raw ideals to the songs and stories of 1980s London Irish life. He was regularly capable of genuinely poetic lyrics dredged from the barroom and the gutter, and the Pogues' songbook is among pop's most peerless. But the drinking life wrecked MacGowan as well as his characters, causing his 1991 eviction from his band, which expired without him. Alcohol has apparently silenced his song-writing, and seen him swaying at something like death's door ever since.

What this also means is that the Pogues are a true people's band, incapable of superiority to even their listeners' most desperate moments. And MacGowan's welcome back by them for these gigs suggest redemption may be possible for anyone.

There is a balance and surprising health to him these days. Pointy-eared and impish, his rotten teeth and cavalier approach to singing mean lyrics are left to the whirling, jigging crowd to sing at first. It's left to the band's arsenal of old Irish banjos, accordions and tin whistles to achieve a rough, showband swing. They have the aura of Irish veterans such as the Chieftans now, for all their London roots, and similarly soundtrack their audience's wasted, big night out.

When MacGowan focuses on his great ballad "A Pair Of Brown Eyes", or even softer moments where the band quietly support him, it is moreover apparent how deceptive his incoherent appearances on chat shows and the like may be. He is a self-aware, charismatic singer, inhabiting his words when he chooses, or shrieking like a banshee. You wonder if there might still be new songs in him after all.

Spider Stacy, brief band leader when MacGowan first left, takes over for that era's "Tuesday Morning", but it is MacGowan, whether leading "Sayonarra's" tumbledown shanty or smashing cymbals with musicians timing, without whom the enterprise would collapse.

"Dirty Old Town" is sung by the crowd before MacGowan can even start. But when he does bite down on its lyrics of seedy romance with animal power, it really comes to life. He is soon muttering darkly of "transgression and sins". And for "A Rainy Night in Soho", backlit by neon stars, he sings with perfectly judged, realistic romance to a girl who is "The Maker of My Dreams".

A rowdy "Irish Rover", is followed by a slurred yet stately "Summer In Siam". And then: "It Was Christmas Eve In The Drunk Tank...", the first words of "A Fairytale Of New York", the season's most potent pop song. It is bedlam by the end. And the Pogues' resurrection and redemption seems complete.