Monday, March 10, 2008

thistle and that

There’s a timeless to-and-fro in the nether reaches of my mind that occasionally comes to the fore, or fro if you like, when I’m at a concert. The music is normally the trigger but it’s not necessarily the performer on stage that’s the subject – just my mind wandering between acts or songs. Last night it came up again and specifically about the performer on stage. I was at the 9:30 Club for The Pogues sold-out stop on their short American tour. The burning question in my brain as I watched lead singer (and songwriter) Shane MacGowan work (?) his way through the show was this: when does a band, or musician, decide that they are beholden to a member beyond any grand usefulness? The Pogues, if you’re unaware, are an iconic Irish folk, Celtic fusion, with dashes of punk band that came on the scene in the early 80s and thrived for about a dozen years before imploding with the firing of leader/founder MacGowan for unprofessional conduct, or some such. MacGowan drank a ton, did loads of drugs (apparently), and had issues with performing; things like showing up, not being drunk (or being drunk), etc. The band finally reformed in the early naughts and has toured intermittently over the last three or four years. They have a devoted following that travels the world to see them and I think at least half of the crowd last night was from beyond the greater D.C. area. My problem is primarily with MacGowan – not as an assessment of his person or life, but musically. First, The Pogues songs are anthemic (is that a word?) – the first chords of the MacGowan-penned songs are so recognizable as to cause screaming, jumping, singing, and stomping from fans – that the vocals and lyrics have become secondary to the music created when performed by MacGowan. Most everyone knows the lyrics, they sing them aloud, and the singer on stage almost becomes an afterthought. You wonder while watching if it’s really necessary for MacGowan to be ‘up there’ singing at all. Why not find a more reliable and functional performer? This is the question that rolls around in the head – in a right there in front of me way....watching. One of the parallels to what I was watching last night is the question of whether the Doors would have been what they were without the short, crazed life of Jim Morrison? You’ve got to believe that a sober Morrison wouldn’t have been half the presence either on record or live. The Pogues wouldn’t be what they are without the legend of Shane MacGowan and they certainly wouldn’t sell $150K in tickets over two in nights in D.C. without him propped up on the stage. The band is so good, the music so tight, that the loss of the lyrics – the singing that’s gone on the night – is counterproductive to the entire show. The answers to the question of instability in a musical front man is that in order to continue performing and working as a band that injects the kind of spirit for which The Pogues stand, they need a different singer. But, a different front man basically means the end of the band – it’s happened to them before and it would happen again.

Now that I’ve got that out in the open I’ll say that the show was memorable because the songs are so great. The best performances (particularly by MacGowan) came during two songs in the encores*; the vocals were better and it almost seemed like the old days. I’m glad I finally got a chance to them live, it was immensely enjoyable, but I’ve no need to see them again. What was horribly clear during the three or four songs that MacGowan was not on stage was that you were watching a band uncomfortable because the crowd no longer had visual contact with the heart of the group. There is, of course, nowhere for them to go. They’ll continue to play shows a few times a year until MacGowan is no longer able to perform and that will be the end. It’s not an unhappy ending for the band and the music…you can always throw on Rum or God and hear the fire they once carried.

*Since I know how much folk like my ideas on encores I’ll fire away again: seven songs over two encores is idiotic. In a show that runs maybe 20-22 songs total you’re holding a third for encores. I know – they were strong in the encore but they could have simply been strong and called it a night.

Seeing Shane last night also reminded of his appearance in this BBC video what was done back in 1997 - a lovely version of a great Lou Reed song, Perfect Day.


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