Shane MacGowan & The Popes – First Avenue (Minneapolis, MN)
“This town is so depressing. This is the most depressing town we’ve ever been in.”
Those were the first words Shane MacGowan slurred to the large and sweaty First Avenue crowd at his first appearance in Minneapolis in many, many years. The crowd cheered wildly, of course. We were so happy to finally see him we would have cheered anything he said. Besides, with the temperature near 90 and the humidity at a billion percent, Minneapolis was feeling pretty depressing right at that moment. Still, it’s the type of town where Shane ought to feel at home, filled as it is with drunks — and not all of them “recovering”, either.
Fittingly, First Avenue has a tradition of giving free bottles of champagne to patrons on their birthdays. And since I was celebrating mine by going to see Shane, I thought some nice cheap bubbly was just what I needed to get in the mood. There was no hope, though, that I could have competed with Shane. A glimpse of him before he went onstage dispelled the rumors I’d heard that he’d cut down on his drinking. He was clearly several sheets to the wind, and he looked lost and out of it in a way that made his drunkenness seem less a part of his persona as an entertainer than just a sad and pathetic sickness.
But onstage was another story. Somehow, Shane was a professional, and in spite of the bottle of wine he was waving around, in spite of the slurred lyrics and the semi-coherent between-song rambles about famous dead Americans and the miserable weather, he never missed a word nor a note. He and the Popes (a very gifted bunch, playing nearly as wide a range of instruments as the Pogues used to) tore vigorously through a rousing set. They focused on tunes from the new record, The Snake, including such singalongs as “Donegal Express” and “Nancy Whiskey” but leaving out the best song on the record, “That Woman’s Got Me Drinking”. Of the few Pogues songs that were resurrected, “A Pair of Brown Eyes” was a particular standout. Shane even threw in some intriguing covers — “Hippy Hippy Shake” and a killer version of “Cracklin’ Rosie” (yes, that “Cracklin’ Rosie”).
All in all, an entertaining and highly listenable show, even if Shane didn’t seem particularly happy to be there. So why did I leave the place feeling vaguely unsettled? Maybe it’s because I was in the middle of turning a year older, but there was something about the sight of a guy drinking himself to distraction and getting applause for it that made me wonder why we all enjoyed watching that kind of spectacle so much. And I did enjoy it; I cheered his drinking stories and his unsteady balance as much as anyone. Because there’s more to Shane than his drinking, after all, and both the fine new record and his stellar career with the Pogues give ample evidence of that. It’s just that I hope he’s going to survive long enough that we can continue to enjoy his talents, which I suspect would still be obvious even if he never drank another drop.