Sunday, December 16, 2007

Poguetry not going through the motions

We didn't intend it, but it seems now to have become part of the Christmas ritual.  Since The Pogues started performing together again a few years back and instituted their annual Christmas tour of the UK and Ireland, the run-up to Christmas (which I understand used to be called Advent) now includes mandatory attendance at their Manchester gig. 

In previous years, the concerts have been held at the Manchester Arena, which I'd describe as the most soulless venue in the UK except that numerous other similar arenas compete eagerly for that title.  This year, they'd moved to Manchester Central, which isn't exactly intimate but does have the great virtue of being unseated.  In that environment, it's not difficult for several thousand well-oiled Irish Mancunians (and others) to create a party atmosphere. 

The Pogues attract a bizarrely mixed constituency of punks (good to see that the UK Subs are back on tour), Irish or those of Irish descent (many of whom looked as if they'd have been just as happy as a Dubliners or Furey Brothers gig), and those like me who are just of a certain age and grew up with the music.  But a manically good time was being had by all.  And it's always fascinating to be the one sober person (well, one of two - my teenage son was with me and also uninebriated) in a room full of semi-drunks. 

For some reason, The Pogues had decided to give us Mancunians an additional exclusive treat in the form of a support set from Billy Bragg (as well as one from The Holloways, a fine young band featuring what can only be described as punk fiddle).  Mr Bragg was on good, crowd-pleasing form, and I'm sure was immensely satisfied to be able to dedicate 'Power in a Union' to the Police Federation (who, for those outside the UK, are currently threatening to ballot for the right to strike, which carries a certain irony for veterans of the 1980s miners' dispute...).

And The Pogues were the best I've seen them.  It's always been slightly startling that the ramshackle bunch I first saw twenty or more years ago have somehow transformed into an extraordinarily tight outfit.  But in previous years they've sometimes tended to come across as their own tribute act, churning out the familiar hits.  Last night, they became a real living band again.  Maybe it was the venue.  Maybe it was that Shane Macgowan actually did virtually all the singing (in previous years, perhaps in deference to Shane's, um, delicate health, he's tended to do a couple then hang over to Terry Woods or Phil Chevron or Spider Stacey to do one - this year, partly due to Phil Chevron's sad absence through illness, he sang all but a couple, and very well, too).  Maybe it was that they were prepared to take some risks and move away from just the obvious stuff - three songs in a row from 'Hell's Ditch', for example.  Anyway, for me, it came to life. 

But, as always, it was a slightly haunted party.  There was the ghost of Kirsty McColl, drfting through 'Fairy Tale of New York' and Bragg's 'New England'.  And the ghost of Joe Strummer lurked mischievously throughout - Junior Murvin's 'Police and Thieves' playing over the PA, The Holloways' version of 'Bank Robber', Bragg's excellent new 'Old Clash Fan Fight Song', The Pogues' familiar use of 'Straight to Hell' as their intro music...  An Irish tradition, I suppose, partying while the dead breathe over your shoulders.

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