The Pogues: Farewell Christmas Tour: O2 Academy Brixton: 21 December
The Pogues Christmas tour has been a staple Christmas event only since 2004. Back then when you bought your ticket you took your chance as to the state of front-man and main songwriter Shane MacGowan. For the first couple of years it was 50/50 as to whether the gig would be a stormer or a write-off. But it soon became apparent that Shane had gotten his act together and the gigs have been at least respectable ever since. I’ve been going for three years now, and Shane has been upright and in tune for all of them.
As ever, the Pogues come on late and the sight of an old infirm man shuffling on stage in a big (too big) black leather overcoat is not a sight to warm the cockles of a novice attendee. But I’m used to it and heartened by the lack of the half empty Jack Daniels bottle that accompanied Shane on stage the time I saw him with the Popes in 2002 (I walked out of that one and sought solace in the nearest pub – I hate it when the act is clearly far more pissed than I am!)
Shane’s introductory remarks are, as usual, lost on me, but his singing on the opening ‘Streams of Whiskey’ is something of a revelation – I understood the words. Other changes are that Shane disappears off stage (for a fag) only twice rather than four or five times of previous gigs, and the liquid refreshment appears to be not lager but water (or possibly a pint of gin and tonic).
The rest of the band are in their usual fine form. Guitarist Phil Chevron takes over lead vocal for a fantastic rendition of ‘Thousands are Sailing’ and tin whistle player Spider Stacy does so for ‘Tuesday morning’. Terry Woods’ cittern and Stacy’s tin whistle skilfully dance their melodies and variances around the rift of the guitar, and the band’s rhythm and horn sections.
The usual standards are, as ever, crowd highlights. Mid-set, there comes the first connection with the MacColl family, Euan’s ‘Dirty Old Town’ which the Pogues have long taken over as their song from folk singer Christy Moore. The second link is, of course, the duet that Euan’s late daughter Kirsty sang with the Pogues – ‘Fairy Tale of New York’. Accompanying Shane on vocals this time is Ella Finer, the daughter of the band’s banjo player Jem. It is the sentimental highlight of the show. Closing the show immediately after is their brilliant raucous standard, ‘Fiesta’ (the crowd again remembering their rowdy, violent youth for that one – in three years I have never found a safe place to stand!)
But their finest moment occurs mid-set with a folk standard that doesn’t usually feature on their Christmas shows, ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. Shane’s singing was clear and powerful. The band is controlled and subdued with the horn section slowly taking over the musical lead as Shane sings of the Australian conscript’s return from the front of the First World War minus his legs – “Never knew there were worse things than dying”. Farewell.