Thir(s)ty Years of The Pogues

Pogues 2012 CologneLabelled by Rolling Stone as ‚The Musical equivalent of a pub crawl’ The Pogues were in Cologne at the Tanzbrunnen on Tuesday to celebrate their suitably titled  ’Thir(s)ty Years’ Anniversary Tour.

I knew the plastic beer glasses would be flying, and I was pretty certain the 7pm start was more a hope than a statement of intent.  I was certain too that the main question on everyone’s minds would be the same as it was in Bonn last year: ‘How will Shane be?’. Which is a pity, because people really should read their tickets more closely.  It doesn’t say ‘Shane MacGowen & Band’  it says ‘The Pogues’ – and they are a great Band in their own right.

Not a few people have mistakenly believed that the popular Anthemic ‘Thousands are Sailing’ is from MacGowans hand, in fact it was written by Philip Chevron and is only missing from the current set because Chevron has throat problems at present.  Andrew Ranken has been on the drum stool since the others finally gave in to his demands for one after early days standing behind a floor Tom-Tom and not much else.  Indeed, Instrumental challenges were a staple of the Bands early days – Accordion Maestro James Fearnley auditioned for Shanes pre-Pogue band ‘The Nips’with a guitar, and Spider Stacy presumably picked up a tin whistle to reduce the headaches from playing what Shane assured him was a ‘valid Irish Instrument’ the tin tray. Jem Finer handled the Accounts in a tin box along with handling banjo.  Seasoned musician that he was, Terry Woods must have had permanent heebie jeebies in his early months trying to fit in with such a crowd.  A rocky road to Cologne this evening it has certainly been, but they’ve made it together.   Certainly worth raising a glass to. Lend me ten pounds and I’ll buy you a drink guys.

Beside the Rhine it might be, but that’s where similarities between Tanzbrunnen and Bonn’s Kunst!Rasen begin and end.  The Tanzbrunnen is rather like an over dimensional bandstand in front of an over dimensional duck pond.  It’s concrete where Bonn is grass – but there are places to find cover if it rains.  It’s ten minutes after 7pm and the die hard fans head from the Bar to the stage-front.  A couple are heading back off to the bar again for a third ‘top-up’ by the time Ireland’s finest Folk-Punk Rockers appear.

Shane MacGowan

Shane MacGowan

Suddenly the barricade is opened, the photographers behind me knock back a pint in one gulp and we’re in.  Just as it starts to rain?  Hang on, yellow rain?  It’s also hailing plastic cups.  Gregarious by nature, Pogues fans are always ready to share a drink it seems.  Shane MacGowan strides across the stage to tumultuous cheers, resplendent in a shamrock covered green scarf and trousers that look as worse for wear as he himself does.  He latches onto the mike stand as if for support and you wonder if he can last the first song.  He looks up at the assembled fans, waves with that wonderful schoolboy grin, and hammers out the lyrics to ‘Streams of Whisky’ with such force that I fear the strict DB level of the show enforced by Cologne Council will make this the first and last song of the evening.   Song over, he seems to withdraw into himself like a spent firework only to erupt back into life for ‘If I should Fall From Grace with God’.  It’s a pattern that will repeat itself throughout the evening.  For the MacGowan health watchers out there – yes he was certainly better than in Bonn even if he’s some way behind Usain Bolt for fitness and speed of foot.  The absence of sunglasses  for most of the show is partly a testament to his extra vitality – and partly an indictment of the low budget lighting set up that makes Hunt, Stacy and Finer stage left look like they’re playing at a local street fair.   The sound isn’t too great either because of a 68DB sound limit on the Venue – “The Pogues need over 100, so does any Rockband” Jem Finer tells me later with an obvious air of annoyance.

If the sound level and the lighting were out of the Bands hands though, the things they could control were excellent.  The songs themselves are all grown up and have learned, in view of their creators unpredictability perhaps, to take care of themselves.  It’s hard to believe that numbers as eloquent as ‘Broad Majestic Shannon’ and ‘Pair of Brown Eyes’ are not Traditional Folk Songs.  It’s hard too at times not to feel anger that their writer hasn’t added to them for so long.  Were they written because, or in spite of, MacGowans problems?

MacGowan adjusts to a world without sunglasses

The ‘sing-along’ style of a Pogues Show tends to make the set-list to a great extent write itself.  ‘Pair of Brown Eyes, ‘Dirty Old Town’, Irish Rover’, ‘Poor Paddy’ and the like are all sung as ever with gusto from the crowd  (and regular pourings of beer from the plastic cups lobbed heavenwards)   but also this evening with gusto from Mr MacGowan himself.  I suspect that people across the Rhine at the Main Station heard a loud and enraged Tipperary voice deploring that Paddy was working “On the fu*king Railway!”  The crowd, as always, loved him, and it seemed mutual: “Danke Schön mein Liebe” he chuckled with an impish smile.     

The evening didn’t belong completely to the Frontman though.  Spider Stacy did a glorious version of  ‘Tuesday Morning’ and was so impressed by James Fearnley’s storming Accordian Solo on ‘Bottle of Smoke’ that he exclaimed loudly afterwards “James you bast*rd!” More subtle but as effective was Fearnley’s piano contribution on ‘Rainy Night in Soho’. 

A solid and enjoyable night of music then for everyone on both sides of the stage  that came, as all good things do, to a too early end that saw Stacy and MacGowan trading the beat to ‘Fiesta’ with tin trays on what must after thirty years be bruised heads

Maybe ‘Rolling Stone’ got it right.  Listening to the wonderful melodies, the inciteful lyrics and the wonderful vocal barracking that Shane MacGowan stuffs gleefully and forcefully into each line you can’t help singing along to the man.  He stands most of the evening glass in one hand and  cigarette stub in the other like any average Joe at any average bar – except he’s written some of the best Irish traditional songs that never were – and he’s backed up by a band, many of whom not only learnt to play largely unfamiliar instruments almost at a stroke, but went on to master them.  On the subject of going on, I’m thinking of a question I put to James Fearnley in interview recently:  “How long can the Band continue?” I asked.  “Until one of us dies” was his dry reply.  But not really surprising when you see these guys get up onstage and play – there’s no-one to compare them to, and they know it.   In a perfect world they would all live as long as ‘Fairytale of New York’ undoubtedly will – forever.

Often copied, never bettered: The Pogues line-up.

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