A lot of Pogues fans seem to identify with Shane MacGowan, and in real personal ways. On Paddy’s Eve at Nokia Theatre, one twentysomething was invoking the man’s gum line, showing a friend the socket from which he’d ripped a molar the week before. Hero identification is important, because it helps postpone our becoming our own kinds of failures. But it also approves folly, which, down the road, could be a bad trip. The difference here is, largely, talent—a fact the band left in little doubt just two songs into their propulsive distillation of accordion-guitars-banjo-mandolin mash.
Density as power goes double for Irish music, and the comparatively diluted charge of Shane’s solo outfit the Popes was never more apparent—though at times he’d still struggled in their mix like a fruit fly in a jar of vinegar. Not tonight: Less bloated, wearing rock-star shades, he looked like the captain in control of what could have been a mutinous crew (or was post-Mac bandleader Spider Stacey just being a putz?). And he sounded like a serrated boot knife. Getting “raped and abused” on “The Old Main Drag” comes off vicious anyway. But to have to “caaaajjjollllle” to survive—Shane managed the word like he was sloughing rotted flesh. Or pride. The band wouldn’t give: They sprinted through “Turkish Song of the Damned” and “Bottle of Smoke,” doubled and flexed, daring Shane to hang on. He did (mostly), in between dispensing frequently decipherable non sequiturs (“Have you seen Brokeback Mountain?”).
The big story, of course, was the reunion; the Pogues hadn’t played here in 15 years. Once upon a time, they brilliantly evoked the messy collision of national and private Irish destinies, even as the fans demanded a besotted Irish genius-poet to call their own. Shane never bargained for sainthood. (But then neither did Patrick, who was just a subliterate pawn at the right place, right time.) So it was doubly moving that his “cultural” assignation—a burden so many of us have thrown back on him with the furious zeal of the ignorant—was merely a subtext, raised in a few stray murmurs of “Shane-O” as the crowd called for an encore.