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POP / By the skin of his teeth: Marek Kohn on Shane MacGowan and the Popes

This came as a pleasant surprise, in so far as I had become convinced some years ago that the next thing I wrote about Shane MacGowan would be his obituary. When he left the Pogues, or the Pogues left him, it seemed to confirm that, underneath the slurred speech, the bottle-strewn interviews and the tottering stage presence, there was no longer a fiery song-writing talent lusting to be expressed.

More recently, the news of his return began to circulate, with assurances of a smartened-up act. Was Shane MacGowan's destiny to enter a state of permanent contrition and spend the rest of his life apologising to people he'd never met before? If the

Jesuits don't get the boy, Twelve Steps will get the man.

But not this one. As soon as the Popes struck up 'Streams of Whiskey', the audience at the Clapham Grand, London, was in no doubt that the new Shane resembles the old one in every particular. He treats the centre spot like a place at the bar, settling in with a lager and a packet of cigarettes, detached from his surroundings and conducting himself as he pleases.

There are none of the rough diamond deliveries that secure a permanent place in the heart for the Pogues' best recordings; but much bearish snarling, in key if you're lucky.

Exactly like old times, indeed; but, on this St Patrick's Night, MacGowan was no longer in the eye of the Dionysian storm that used to possess great London dance-halls when the Pogues celebrated the feast-day. Only the ripples of that extraordinary spirit remain in the audience, and the Popes are a workman-like urban rock band that take MacGowan back towards his punk roots.

Because the studio MacGowan and the stage one are two different beings, it was impossible to judge the new songs, though it is safe to say there are no radical developments. The show finished with the old favourites. MacGowan did 'Sally Maclennane',

arguably his finest song, the courtesy of remembering all the words. With that, though, he seemed to be spent. If he hadn't announced it, 'The Irish Rover' would only have been identifiable from dental records.

An encore looked improbable at that point, but within moments he was back, giving a rousing rendition of 'Dirty Old Town'. Nick Cave then loped on to lead a duet of Sinatra's 'Life's Been Good to Me'. After a final blast of punk, a Pope tapped the Jeffrey Bernard of rock on the shoulder and pointed to the wings. If MacGowan doesn't know whether he's coming or going, how should anybody else?