ROCK / Return of the prodigal

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The Independent Culture
THE BARS were never less than four deep. The amplifiers were draped in tricolours. The atmosphere was festive, approaching delirious. St Patrick's Night at the Clapham Grand would have been a ball whatever the merits of Shane MacGowan & the Popes, but this party had a significant hidden agenda: to welcome Shane MacGowan back to the peak of his powers. It was that good.

To begin, MacGowan led his band of unknowns through the Pogues' 'Streams Of Whiskey' - ''led' being the operative word. It was not a case of making allowances - his voice, shot to ribbons at the Fleadh in 1991, has made the great prodigal return. The first of his new songs, 'Church of the Holy Spook', growled like a motorbike.

Where the Pogues tootled and rollicked frantically, the Popes play cut-throat rock'n' roll. The high-kicking Paul McGuinness on lead guitar has a no-frills rockabilly style that makes Link Wray sound like Dave Gilmour. Allied to a penchant for splaying his legs and ripping out minimal solos copyrighted somewhere around the time of the cavemen, this introduces a feeling of evil unknown in Pogues circles.

When tambourine basher Colm O'Maonlai picks up the tin whistle, the Popes sound like an Irish Clash - 'Aisling' had all the three-chord fury of 'White Riot'. But although he spiced up the set with the odd Pogues song ('Sally MacLennane', 'If I Should Fall from Grace with God'), it was MacGowan's new material that set the heart racing. 'Handbag' was extraordinary, a two-chord raunch worthy of the early Seventies Rolling Stones, while 'My Girl's Got Me Drinking' crowd-pleased immediately with its chorus of 'one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 bottles of gin'.

By the first bars of 'Dirty Old Town', any lingering notions of a death's-door MacGowan had long been sent packing. Only by cocking up 'The Irish Rover' did he put a foot wrong - well, that and an awful rockabilly tune early on - but as he welcomed Nick Cave on stage for an emotional duet on Frank Sinatra's 'I've Been a Rover', it was Cave who looked the worse for wear. And that, more than anything, was the night's happiest portent.

The demons that drive Robyn Hitchcock are not so visible, but anyone who can reflect on marital jealousy with the line 'he's a long kebab inside your ovaries' clearly has a brain that over-qualifies him for the job of pop star. His solo acoustic gig at the Jazz Cafe was often hilarious - one bizarre introduction about writing in hotels in Los Angeles suggested that the mini-bars there were full of 'free evil', available to those 'who subscribe to, uh, certain other charge cards I could mention'.

But while Hitchcock has always been dogged by allegations of wilful whimsy, in truth he's highly versatile, spinning a dark folk riddle on 'Serpent at the Gates of Wisdom', invoking domestic paranoia on 'My Wife and My Dead Wife' and exhibiting surreal flair on 'The Yip Song' - about dying of cancer with a chorus that goes, in its entirety, 'Vera Lynn'.

Returning for a lengthy encore, he switched to electric guitar, began to look really quite intense and fired out a savage version of 'Only the Stones Remain'. His final wave to the crowd seemed distracted; there are definitely demons there.

Inspiral Carpets are the one band to have survived 'Madchester', but they only had two good ideas at the Astoria, both before they actually started playing. First, for their intro tape, they chose a stirring, brassy number from The Prisoner TV series. Then came a taped announcement from Mark E Smith, who flatteringly hailed them as 'Oldham's answer to the Seeds'.

Now, hang on. The Seeds were one of the great psychedelic outfits, but the Inspirals these days are entirely mundane. The songs on Devil Hopping, their new album, are lumpy and cliche'd, while the audience's insistence on bellowing 'Moo]' (an Inspirals T-shirt logo at least five years old) after each song proved which era they felt happiest in.

Unsurprisingly it was the old songs ('Move', 'Joe') that went down best. 'This is How it Feels' used to be a cute little anthem for the lonely, but Tom Hingley now sounds like Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet, with all the smugness that entails.

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