Given Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan’s storied relationship with booze and drugs (a relationship which has sidelined him on occasion during his own band’s performances), the moment when he emerged onstage at the 930 Club Wednesday night for the last of three D.C. shows came as something of a pleasant shock. Throughout the Pogues’ long and tumultuous lifespan, MacGowan’s onstage antics have grown into the stuff of legend. Whether it be “that time Shane traded shirts with a random audience member” or “that time Shane booted on a crowd in Dublin,” MacGowan-related lore has staked out a precious place in Irish rock history. In recent years, though, rumors have begun to circulate that the Pogue party might be nearing its end.
As the lights dimmed and a machine began to belch puffs of smoke over and across the stage, the crowd grew abuzz with nervous energy, until the eight Pogues, dressed in various degrees of black, emerged from the wings. One man, thick-bodied and shaggy-haired, swayed forward to the mike, wielding a cigarette and half-smiling at the crowd through a sunken mouth. The crowd seemed to breathe a sigh of relief before erupting into cheers—Shane MacGowan, abysmal dentistry notwithstanding, was alive and, it appeared, well.
With little ado, the Pogues kicked off their set with “Streams of Whiskey,” which, surprisingly, did not noticeably rouse the crowd. The second number, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” got people slightly more excited, though it took guitarist Phil Chevron letting go his instrument and gesturing to the crowd in “pump it up” fashion for the energy to begin to build. After these first two songs, MacGowan muttered an almost incomprehensible “thanksalot” and flashed a thumbs-up before swaggering offstage, leaving vocalist and tin-whistler Spider Stacy to lead the band into a lyric-less yet rollicking jig. “Ya havin’ a good time?” Stacy asked, gesturing offstage after MacGowan. “He’s always havin’ a good time.” As if called to arms, the crowd grew increasingly frenzied, welcoming MacGowan back onstage with raised cans of Guinness.
The Pogues, who have been around since 1982, still play with the glee and enthusiasm of adolescents throwing down for the first time (with the exception, perhaps, of banjo-player Jem Finer, who looked as though he had been dragged from bed moments before the show). Accordionist James Fearnley, possibly the most charismatic Pogue, leapt off the drum platform onto the edge of the stage, pumping his instrument so close to the audience that a stretched-out hand or two might have touched him.
Musically, the Pogues these days offer nothing new. The band has not dropped an album since 1996’s Pogue Mahone, recorded just before their breakup, and since reuniting they tend to cycle through the same repertoire of roughly twenty songs: On this year’s tour, the Pogues are playing almost identical sets. Whatever the formula, it works. Closing with two ballads (“Dirty Old Town” and “Rainy Night in Soho”) and two punky slam-dance instigators (“The Sickbed of Cuchulainn” and “Sally MacLennane”), the Pogues leave their audience sweaty and sated. As usual, the band seals the deal once and for all with “Fiesta,” during which Spider Stacy reliably bangs a metal tray against his forehead in tune with Andrew Rankin’s percussion. By this point last night, the mosh pit was in full force: elbows were raised, bodies slammed. Eardrums, by the end, were shot to hell.
So if the Pogues are still rattling through their old bag of tricks, what is it about their shows that continues to inspire audience members to slam their bodies up against one another? Judging by last night’s show, it is the band’s ability to regenerate while never straying far from their original identity. These days, they display a discernible yet remarkably placid awareness of its own mortality—which, at this point, clearly depends upon Shane’s well-being.
During his final moments onstage, as his bandmates cranked out the final bars of “Fiesta,” MacGowan caught sight of an uncorked bottle of white wine perched on a stool to his right. Without hesitation, he clasped the bottle by the neck, sized it up with a mischievous glance, and began pouring it down his gullet, allowing the liquid to douse his chest and puddle on the stage. Watching, one could not help but raise a can of Guinness, praying to God that this rock legend might soak our humble stage in booze once again….