The Pogues at Zitadelle Spandau, Berlin
By Sascha Krieger
This one is personal. Sometimes a reviewer is best served by giving up the pretense of objectivity, sometimes what you want to review is just too big a part of the emotional baggage we all carry around with. This, I must say, is the case with me and the Pogues, this impossible Irish pub band which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The Best of The Pogues, a compilation issued in the 1990s, was my introduction to Irish music, and for a long time, the likes of The Dubliners, who revolutionized Irish music in the 1960s, or Planxty, who did the same a decade later, seemed pale and boring in the light of The Pogues, who fused Irish ballad art with a rock music line-up and a punk attitude. Dirty Old Town was one of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar, in fact, it was one of the reasons why I picked up that instrument in the first place. I sang The Broad Majestic Shannon to myself as I first crossed that mighty river and Sally MacLennane was the musical portrait I had in my had when I arrived in Ireland in the autumn of 1995. The fullness of life, from death and grief and longing to love and joy and friendship, that this song contained, packaged in the musical equivalent of a bar brawl, still makes this one of the most complete songs ever written.
For one thing has made this band survive and set it apart from all those Irish and pseudo-Irish folk rock outfits and many a „serious“ Irish balladeer, too: The Pogues have always spoken to the heart as well as the brain, they have always dug deep into the pleasant, but more importantly the less pleasant layers of life’s geology. And they took a musical tradition that young people frowned upon and were ready to throw into the dustbin of musical history and resurrected it, plunged it brutally into the here and now, made it relevant again. And then there was Shane MacGowan, their frontman and chief songwriter, whose public love affair with alcohol turned into a gigantic alcohol problem, and who was never supposed to see the band’s thirtieth anniversary.
But he has. Though his speech is slurred, his walk insecure as he is led on the stage in Berlin, his face a wax-like white, he is still there and he can still bring this wild bunch of songs to life. Indeed, his voice, his singing are better, more flexible, more expressive than two years ago when he last played in Berlin. A Rainy Night in Soho is sung with an unexpected tenderness in MacGowan’s voice and reminds the audience that not all memories are good ones. Pain and loss is never far from the core of these songs and how could they be? The songs have meaning for him again and he fills them with enough life and soul to allow the audience to carry them from there. For these are first and foremost their songs, all those favourites such as If I Should Fall From the Grace of God, The Irish Rover, A Pair of Brown Eyes or Body of An American.
The band is a well-oiled music machine, highly skilled and astonishingly precise, these days their high energy level originates more in their skill than in any punk attitude they might have once had. MacGowan does his best to inject some edge into the music but they all know that they are part of their and their guests‘ past, old friends you are happy to meet every once in a while. The evening begins with Streams of Whiskey and ends with Fiesta and for Dirty Old Town the audience is considerably louder than the band. This is their evening in which they revisit their memories and past dreams, some fulfilled, many abandoned. The Pogues are the masters of ceremony, they play the soundtrack for the many dancing, celebrating, reminiscing, dreaming, singing people. And a wonderful soundtrack it is, one that can cover an entire life. And that is something, isn’t it?