“So drunk to hell I left the place/ Sometimes crawling, sometimes walking,” maintains 55-year-old frontman Shane MacGowan, draped in black in the shadows, on “A Pair of Brown Eyes”. The music industry’s most notorious hell-raiser not only appears to be still standing (well mainly slouching) but his voice (never an instrument of great beauty) feels more vital and robust than it has sounded in a long time for this celebration of their 1985 tour de force, Run, Sodomy & The Lash.
The Irish folk-punk outfit, who are regular performers at Christmas and are now sadly without the recently deceased guitarist Philip Chevron (who wrote tonight's “Thousands Are Sailing”) and bassist Cait O’Riordan, have always been a fearsome proposition live. However, their finest album, which they perform in its entirety, appears to have particularly invigorated them here.
They’re assisted by the suitably boisterous Camille O’Sullivan on the drinking song “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day”, and the Irish singer returns to duet with MacGowan for the inevitable finale, “Fairytale in New York”. Still the best Christmas song, by quite some way (“I could have been someone/ Well so could anyone” certainly trumps “The moon is right/ The spirit's up”), and O’Sullivan is a worthy replacement for the late, great, irreplaceable Kirsty MacColl.
While much of the focus is often on MacGowan and his unfortunate teeth and refueling habits, it’s often forgotten how politically and socially engaged some of The Pogues’ material is. This is exemplified on tonight’s opener “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn”, from Run, Sodomy & The Lash, on which MacGowan claims “Now you'll sing a song of liberty for blacks and paks and jocks/ And they'll take you from this dump you're in and stick you in a box.”
However, it’s romance, bawdiness, melancholy and booze (usually whiskey) that lie at the heart of this band’s music. “The men all started telling jokes/ And the women they got frisky/ By five o’clock in the evening/ Every bastard there was pissed…” MacGowan slurs on “The Body of an American”. This is the beer-swilling universe the Pogues operate in, an excellent pub band essentially, much like Chas n’ Dave, and masters of the mandolin, accordian and tin whistle too.
When MacGowan’s voice flags or when he (quite frequently) mangles some of the lyrics, the well lubricated audience join in to help out, belting out the caustic words to “Dirty Old Town”, Euan MacColl’s mordant tribute to Salford’s factories. However, the highlight is the lyrically dense and narratively robust “Sally MacLennane”, on which MacGowan emotes “He soothed the souls of psychos and the men who had the horn/ And they all looked very happy in the morning.”
The lively crowd - they jig, squabble, wave pints and some perch on shoulders - sway as one for Eric Bogle's lament “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, which signals the end of Rum, Sodomy & the Lash.
The rousing finale was typically bawdy with “The Irish Rover”, “Boys from the County Hell”, Fairytale of New York“ and "Fiesta" rounding off a raucous, festive night. Shane endures...