Shane MacGowan and the Popes – 930 Club Washington, DC (May 8, 2002)

Come to think of it, maybe I HAVEN’T ever seen Shane play with the Popes. In all the times I saw performances by the legendary songwriter, he stood apart from the band and the audience alike, dribbling out lyrics as they came back to him, showing no sense of ensemble performance, stage presence, or the intelligent and elegiac lyricist who made the Pogues my favorite eighties band. Never did I see him dance about, beat the drum-set whimsically, or clown with a towel on his head and a necktie in his head.

Resisting the urge to ape some Dublin vernacular after the amazing show I just saw at Washington, DC’s nine-thirty club would be harder if Shane hadn’t impressed me so thoroughly. Articulate and dynamic, Shane owned the songs he covered as masterfully as those he wrote. Hank Williams’ “Angel of Death” and Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty old town” both afforded hiim opportunities to sing on key and he made them his own by holding their notes with tuneful conviction.

Likewise, material he coathored with the energetic Popes fared well because they all had some kind of understanding that he was no longer some poster child for irish intemperance and they were no longer a backup band, lucky enough to record with a legend who could get them gigs; rather, they rallied to champion rousing (and rowdy) numbers like “Mother Ma Chroi”, “Donegal Express”, and “More Kicks Than Pricks”. If some of my old favorite Pogues songs were missing from the setlist, I minded less because I knew that the catalogue of the present band was earning it’s audience, chord by rambunctious chord.

Still, the auld ditties never came amiss to my sentimental ears, and hearing Behan’s Auld triangle sung in the clearest voice I have ever heard from Shane nearly brought tears to my eyes, and the exquisite buzz of the “Sickbed of Cuchulain” managed that, even as it made me dance. missing songs like “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and “Sally Maclenane” number among those I’ve often heard live. Rarer treats like “Body of An American” and “Bottle of Smoke” made this show extra special. Seeing them performed with such robust enthusiasm and good humor took this performance to a new level.

If this review strikes the reader as too personal an experience to give the reader a fair idea of what (s)he might have heard for himself, consider how personal Shane’s writing tends to be; whether moping into a pint glass over jukebox songs about love or celebrating an epecially good run of odds in “Bottle of Smoke”, these are songs which bear singing along because everyone in that club demonstrated a sense of personal communion with Shane. Everytime is the first time when dealing with an erratic genius who could come back from decrepitude and the loss of a longtime girlfriend, and we got some first class entertainment in the bargain. That’s as personal as it gets, and his offer to name a street, he’ll name you a bar and walk miles to buy you a jar rang true at every turn.

Review by Peter Burris

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