Review | The Pogues, Bristol Harbourside Summer Series
The weather had been toying with us all day, and the prospect of an outdoor gig was difficult to look forward to. What's more, the queue for the bar belongs at Disneyland in summer. With one eye on the clouds, and one hand grasping a hard earned plastic Guiness, I spot the inimitable waddle that can only be Shane MacGowan approaching centre stage, quickly followed by an elegantly dressed brigade. He takes a moment to acknowledge the couple-of-thousand before him, and the drummer's sticks count to four. I forget about the angry looking sky. A tree-armed attack of accordion, banjo and tin-whistle hammer home the hook of their rummy anthem 'Streams of Whiskey'. Mr Ranken and Mr Hunt, drums and bass respectively, add a few miles of foundation underneath. It's immediately clear that these players have lost none of their skills in combining Celtic virtuosity with rabble-rousing energy. When the vocals arrive, however, comments on technique and musicality go out the window.
The lyrics are not so much sung, as moaned; age and hedonism have knocked a few notes of the range; words arrive slightly later than the beat, and this has a tendency to run entire sentences into one word. As I said, though, such observations are irrelevant; this is Shane ManGowan. Like a Dylan, or Van Morrison, his mere presence is enough to keep an audience's attention, regardless of whether he hits the high notes or nails the diction.
'If I Should Fall from Grace' follows. Always a highlight of any Pogues set, the band maintain their sparkle as Shane bellows out the lyric:
If I should fall from grace with God, and the doctors can't relieve me... If I'm buried 'neath the sod, and the Angels won't receive me
It's borderline impossible for anyone to utter those words and not sound poetic.
Halfway through the set, Spider Stacey pockets his tin-whistle and takes MacGowan's mantle while the main man disappears for a mysterious break back stage. Impressively svelte, and dressed like he could be on the front cover of GQ Magazine, Stacey does a decent job as replacement frontman; the melodies take a refreshing turn into tone and clarity, and the song 'Tuesday Morning' is a hit with the audience. However, it does turn the band into what they're not: a generic English punk band. Sure, the banjo is still going, and James Fearnley is wielding his accordion like it weighs less than oxygen, but it just doesn't feel quite as uniquely authentic as the rest of the show.
With normal service resumed, the crowd vibrates with excitement as the band launch into 'Thousands are sailing'- deceased guitarist Phil Chevron's marvellous composition. Up until this point, the vocals had been nicely sitting back in the mix; Shane's voice was more like an instrument, and the crowd were singing every word anyway. The person in charge of such matters isn't satisfied with this, though. They decide that cranking up the vocals will render the words intelligible. The experiment is not a successful one, and it doesn't get resolved. The song choices, from now on, are near-perfect for this audience, but they could sound better.
No Pogues gig would be complete without heartfelt renditions of 'Dirty Old Town' and 'The Irish Rover', and this one doesn't wander from the formula. Any threat of rain has long since retreated, and the night is cloaking the event in a veil of intimacy. We all scream the choruses, before we say a temporary goodbye to the band. They re-emerge shortly, with a selection of friends and comrades doubling the population on stage, and perform the gorgeous 'Rainy Night in Soho'. They then steam through 'Fiesta', as the crowd twists and pogos, and the musicians bounce up and down like middle-age is a thing reserved for the teetotal. Soon, it's all over, and the guys lap up the substantial applause and eventually vacate- almost having to drag MacGowan away from his adoring congregation.
A great band musically, I can't imagine that they ever leave an audience unsatisfied. But they also possess something even rarer: a true poet and libertine as their talisman. If it wasn't for that pesky sound-man, though.....
Images taken by: Paul Michael