If there’s one holiday Australian’s truly get behind with gusto, it’s the celebration of St Patrick’s Day, and so having Celtic punk legends The Pogues in town was excuse enough for a mini-reprise of the festivities. Oversized green leprechaun hats, Irish sport shirts, endless shamrocks and the guff of whiskey breath fills Festival hall, along with the general rowdiness of your local watering hole near closing time.
Being a Pogues gig – their first in Australia for 22 years – mass alcohol consumption is a given. The only question yet to be answered is who will be the most pissed; the fans or the band’s renowned lead singer, Shane MacGowan. Pogues concerts have never adopted the official warning; ‘show may conclude early depending on Shane’s ability to remain standing’, yet it is a real possibility as their touring history will support. Tonight we are treated firstly to the original eight-piece line-up who take to the stage as the sound of The Clash’s Straight To Hell fades over the PA, and finally an unhurried, slightly wobbly MacGowan, who emerges to a welcoming roar.
Before a note of music is even played, the man who has done nothing to remove the stereotype of the Irish drunk, is shouting erratically into his mic. “I can’t fuckin’ believe ish been twenny two fuckin’ yearsh, Melbourne….” He says, followed by some indecipherable mumbling, and finally, “Sorry about all the fuckin’ swearing.” He takes a defiant drag from a cigarette and grins broadly, revealing what little remains of his front teeth as the band burst into life with Streams Of Whiskey. In those 22 years, The Pogues have gone through many changes before arriving here on what is their retirement tour. MacGowan was booted out for his out-of-control behavior, and the band recorded one album without him - which remains their last studio set – before going into hibernation. No new music means of course tonight is all golden-era Pogues anthems, pulled mainly from Rum, Sodomy & The Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace With God.
Despite the ever popular Dirty Old Town and the rousing Fiesta, Australian fans are clearly in favour of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, and begin calling for it not three songs into the set. Shane introduces the boozy sing-a-long classic, but nobody seems sure what he’s actually saying in regards to it, and nor do we care. The chance to link arms with total strangers and sway to its waltzy tempo, shouting the refrain is all that matters now. If you’re not among the great heaving all-in sway, then you’re one of the brave bastards at the front, dodging crowd surfers and angrily moshing, or avoiding the projectile spit drops leaping from MacGowan’s ravaged mouth. The momentum changes dramatically though as Shane suddenly leaves the stage, hurling the microphone onto the floor, leaving more than a few of us wondering, ‘is that it?’.
To be fair to MacGowan, he seems to be working hard on stage tonight and is as coherent as can be expected, but a brief exchange between himself and tin-whistle player (and one-time lead-singer) Spider Stacey, ends abruptly. The fray, it turns out was all bluff, yet the show reaches a turning point here. Spider Stacey reprises his one-time role as band leader for Tuesday Morning – the best non-MacGowan Pogues song – and the crowd, perhaps still wondering if Shane’s done a bunk, respond with folded arms. Personally, I love Tuesday Morning, and being the only person shouting his approval and pogoing around - I suddenly feel quite lonely in the packed venue. Thankfully, for the sake of recapturing the all-in atmosphere, MacGowan re-emerges - only this time he’s packing booze. Swigging from a bottle of red – most of which goes down his shirt, on the floor - and on the front row - he receives a bigger applause than his first appearance. It’s as though he’s suddenly complete in people’s eyes. The dribbling and shouting Shane is here at last but it’s hard to ignore the whole pantomime element to the sight. I guess some things are just too intertwined; Iggy Pop wouldn’t dare go on stage in a shirt, just as Pogues fans expect to see a certain amount of drunkenness for their dollar.
The playing-up-to-his-image thing is fine, but what surprises me is MacGowan is determined to make the songs sound good and is less concern with getting so smashed, that he sacrifice’s the ability to perform. It’s a big step for the man in my eyes, but maybe a let down for some here who perhaps were looking forward to a good first-hand Shane MacGowan crash and burn story, like what happened in the old days of the band. They’ve all learned a few lessons no doubt, but The Pogues still put on the best rabble at an age where many ‘former-greats’ are cranking out piss-weak covers album or flogging Time Life CD compilations on TV. The sight of a greying accordionist performing a stage-length knee-slide and a banjo being thrashed in the fashion of electric guitar still somehow suits this band of merry makers. It’s as though through playing Celtic-punk, they earn a golden pass to act anyway they please at whatever age. Besides, the encore consisting of Sally MacLennane, Rainy Night In Soho and Fiesta might well be one of the finest ever seen at Festival hall.
FESTIVAL HALL SETLIST: 04/04/2012
Streams Of Whiskey
If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Broad Majestic Shannon
Greenland Whale Fisheries
A Pair Of Brown Eyes
Sunny Side Of The Street
Repeal of the Licensing Laws
The Band Played Waltzing Matilda
The Body Of An American
The Boys From County Hell
Thousands Are Sailing
Dirty Old Town
Bottle Of Smoke
Sickbed of Cuchulain
A Rainy Night In Soho
The Irish Rover
Poor Paddy On The Railway