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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Shane MacGowan, The Pogues, and NASCAR

Went last night to see The Pogues, long one of my favorite bands, though I'd never managed to catch them live during their first incarnation in the '80s. Glad I went, but Margaret and I left before the encore - and that is a key mark of how bad they were.

The band has become a self-caricature. Lead singer Shane MacGowan's drinking problem is legendary - the band fired him over it in 1991. Last night, MacGowan fell over three times on stage, finishing songs from the floor before the roadies, then his band mates, helped him to his feet. They finally wheeled in one of those big gray equipment cases for him to sit on.

And naturally it affected his performance. MacGowan's voice has always been an acquired taste, a whiskey-and-cigarettes rasping (and often indecipherable) mumble that was also a muted primal scream. The raw intensity gave the songs an urgency. He was the romanticized fallen man incarnate, the beauty of the emotion overcoming the limitations of the voice.

Last night at Club Nokia, all that was left was the bad voice. Except for a few moments that sparkled ("If I Should Fall From the Grace of God" and "Sunny Side of the Street" taped live here in March in the current incarnation), it was an ineffective drone of a voice, with no intensity or emotional impact, off-tempo much of the time, and that seemed to throw the whole band off. "Turkish Song of the Damn" was a reel of mush. "Bottle of Smoke" careened badly. When Spider Stacey, the whistle player who eventually took over singing duties after MacGowan's departure (and after a short stint by the irreplaceable Joe Strummer), sang it was a tighter band. But it wasn't The Pogues. And with MacGowan, The Pogues were close to unlistenable.

After MacGowan's third tumble - flat backwards with a dumb look of surprise on his face - the rest of the show was like watching a NASCAR race, where part of the draw is anticipating the next wreck. And you have to wonder where the band's pride is. Can they be satisfied propping up MacGowan just for the sake of a gig?
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