The Pogues at Riviera

(This review is also at the web site of the Southtown Star newspaper.)

By 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, the crowd at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre was getting restless, with impatient Pogues fans clapping rhythmically and wondering when the band would come out. The group was running about an hour late, and the word among the security guards was that Pogues lead singer Shane MacGowan – who has a well-deserved reputation for drinking heavily – had not even shown up. Finally, with a sense of relief, the word came: Shane was in the building.

As MacGowan and his seven original bandmates in the Pogues took the stage at last, all seemed to be forgiven. And by the end of the show, as audience members waved their fists above their heads and careened against one another with reckless abandon, the night had turned into an ecstatic celebration of the Irish folk-rock, both wild and beautiful, that made the Pogues famous in the first place.

The Pogues haven’t released any new material since the original lineup reunited last year, and like other bands relying on the appeal of their back catalogues, the Pogues face the risk of becoming a nostalgia act. But that’s a worry for another day. In the meantime, it was simply glorious to hear the Pogues’ combination of drunken pub anthems, rollicking jigs and reels and good old-fashioned sentimental ballads.

The question hovering over any Pogues concert is what sort of condition MacGowan will be in. Repeating his performance last year in a Pogues concert at the Congress Theatre, MacGowan appeared to be inebriated yet capable of remembering all the words of his songs, singing them all in his typically slurred, thick brogue. It’s easy to imagine MacGowan as a drunkard in some pub who unexpectedly wanders over to the microphone and stuns everyone with his poetic powers.

Wearing a top hat, dark suit and sunglasses, MacGowan leaned and staggered all night, pretending at a couple of points that he was boxing with his microphone stand. For whatever reason, MacGowan seems to require periodic rests or breaks. At several points, he walked offstage and relinquished lead vocals to other Pogues for a song or two. In MacGowan’s absence, Spider Stacy sang his best-known Pogues tune, “Tuesday Morning,” and Phillip Chevron sang “Thousands Are Sailing,” his memorable track from the album “If I Should Fall From Grace With God.”

One of the reasons MacGowan can get away with being a little out of it during concerts is that he has such a crack band playing behind him. The Pogues play their accordions, banjos, whistles and mandolins with a lot of finesse without ever getting fussy about it. They strayed pretty far from traditional Irish music with their closing song, the rousing Spanish-tinged party tune “Fiesta,” but few bands capture Ireland’s spirit as well as the Pogues.

See my photos of the Pogues.

The opening act was one of our local should-be-stars, Ike Reilly, who played a solid set with some of his best songs, including the apropos “When Irish Eyes Are Burning Bright.” He seemed to win over the crowd members unfamiliar with his music, getting more enthusiastic applause as the set went on.

See my photos of the Ike Reilly Assassination.

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