Perhaps one of the reasons my zeal for WhiskyFest was a little subdued was that I had had a whiskyfest of my own the night before with my old pal, Jameson. The occasion was a performance by the Pogues, who played four straight nights at the Fillmore last week.
Half my blood is Scotch-Irish, meaning that when I get enough whiskey in me and hear the familiar reels of Irish folk-punk as spun by the Pogues and bellowed by their bibulous lead singer Shane MacGowan, I start to reflexively bounce off the f’in walls.
This happened last Monday after about three shots of Jameson and a couple of beers. It took me about a third of the show, though, to connect with the band, and when I did I found myself carried away in a fit of dancing, bouncing and crashing against the other victims around me.
Of course, Shane MacGowan came out completely sauced, looking like a clown in a giant top hat and making a show later on of drinking whiskey on stage. The music is about getting drunk and, as I mentioned above, tends to become more infectious, more powerful, more emotional the more you drink. However, before the Jameson set in for me, it was possible to observe the general sadness about MacGowan as well. Early on he was like a jester, forgetting lyrics missing cues and visibly annoying the rest of the band, who were well dressed and coiffed and played tight as a drum. (MacGowan would improve, improbably, as the show went on.) I mused to myself how deep down they must resent him, as taking care of drunk people is one of the more frustrating and annoying things to have to do on a daily basis.
But when MacGowan left the stage and the band played a few numbers without him, it just wasn’t the same. They played fast, tight, energetic numbers, but there wasn’t the soul. The soul comes only from a drunken, clownish, maudlin sot who is somewhat of a train wreck on stage. At a point you feel sad for him, sad with him. But then the Jameson sets in and he carries you away into his Irish world of anger, pride, beauty, lost love, hard knocks, etc. And that’s the message of the music in a way: overcoming hard times with poetry, music and drink. And Shane MacGowan is the Pogues to the core, a soused rock‘n roll poet, a growling, sibilant truth-teller, baring his weakness, his ugliness, his drunkenness for all to see—sad as the spectacle may be. But it’s that ugly honesty that makes him and his music so desperately beautiful.