Review: The Pogues, Titus Andronicus at Rams Head Live March 7
The legendary Irish band the Pogues performed with New Jersey upstarts Titus Andronicus Monday night at Rams Head Live. Contributor Evan Haga has this review.
Since 2006, the resurrected Pogues have become a fixture of the St. Paddy’s Day season in the States.
Their shows, which almost always hit the same great-sounding club venues, feature the same hit-parade set list (no new material) and the same spirited band fronted by punk-poet Shane MacGowan, whose drunken romantic persona has been endlessly mythologized.
Their current East Coast jaunt, which hit Baltimore Monday night, is reportedly the Pogues’ final U.S. tour. That's a shame. The seven piece band's propellant blend of Celtic roots and pub-rock fire is still worth paying around $60 for.
But for 53-year-old MacGowan, who looks and sounds like a man destroyed—even by the low standards he set himself—that might be for the best.
In the past—say, when I caught the band at 9:30 Club in 2009—MacGowan’s condition posed a moral dilemma that was worth overlooking.
There was the suppressed thought that one more tour could kill him, but you couldn’t deny the romance of the situation: He trundled on and off stage like someone shuffling toward the bathroom mid-bender, yet he still knew the tunes well enough to make the correct entrances and exits.
He delivered his melancholy tales of liquor and damaged relationships almost indecipherably, but with the requisite boozy glory.
But last night MacGowan flubbed some of the Pogues' most important tunes, and even his marble-mouthed vocals—a sort of croak mixed with a toothless wheeze—couldn’t mask the missteps. He came in early or late, sang wrong verses at the wrong time, and forgot words altogether.
“If I Should Fall From Grace With God” was unfortunate; “A Pair of Brown Eyes” worse. Which is not to say the set was a washout: MacGowan improved as the night progressed, and did fine with other ballads. (The glaring omission from the set was, once again, “Fairytale of New York.”) He also stayed hydrated with what appeared to be plain old water rather than whiskey.
But another wince-worthy moment was always around the corner. On “London Girl,” which tin-whistle player Spider Stacy introduced as a Northern Soul floor-filler, he fell grossly behind the tempo. Stacy took on most of the emcee duties, though his addresses and tributes weren’t all that lucid either.
Big deal, MacGowan defenders will say. (And there are legions of them, including the guy who jumped onstage only to find that security wasn’t into it.) But it changed the dynamic. Two years ago the whole enterprise felt like a captain leading his pirates through the ultimate barroom songbook.
Here, the experience evoked certain blues shows I’ve been to or heard about: an icon still on the road long after a career has peaked, held up by sharp players who are left to grimace and smirk at one another, trying to anticipate the next unexpected turn.
When MacGowan took a breather and left Stacy to sing “Tuesday Morning,” or let the band rip through the instrumental hell-raiser “Repeal of the Licensing Laws,” it felt like a relief. Throughout the night, the players - several of them sturdy multi-instrumentalists - made a strong case for the power and urgency of acoustic instrumentation.
The giant, jigging mob in front of the stage would have been enviable for even the loudest, most electric punk band. Opener Titus Andronicus, a quintet from New Jersey whose new album takes inspiration from the Civil War, certainly was a loud punk band, and a very good one.
Their music combined the stuff of Celtic folk and American roots— the two-beat rhythms, melodies fit for bagpipes—with indie-rock touchstones. (The punk version of Big Country, maybe?) Bearded singer/guitarist Patrick Stickles’ intuitive solos evoked J. Mascis’ playing, and his lyrics had a downtrodden charm worth deconstructing.
Self-loathing and revelry, it seems, will always go well together.
The Pogues set list:
Streams of Whiskey
If I Should Fall From Grace With God
The Broad Majestic Shannon
A Pair of Brown Eyes
Lullaby of London
Sunny Side of the Street
Repeal of the Licensing Laws
And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda
Body of an American
Thousands Are Sailing
Dirty Old Town
Bottle of Smoke
The Sickbed of Cuchulainn
A Rainy Night in Solo
The Irish Rover
Poor Paddy on the Railway
Evan Haga, a frequent Midnight Sun contributor, is the managing editor of JazzTimes. He last reviewed The Cult for the blog. Erik Maza edited this post.
Photo: The Pogues official MySpace