Between Love and Bait

Source: The Times
Author: Ann Scanlon
Copyright: (c) The Times of London News International 1996

Shane MacGowan and the Popes Astoria, WC2. POP: The Popes’ Christmas address

There are not many singers who could greet a crowd with the words “How are you doing, you poisoned maggots?” and expect to receive a rapturous response. But the relationship between Shane MacGowan and his audience, built up over more than a decade, is based upon a real sense of empathy and a mutual disregard for any of the conventional niceties.

Whether people were watching MacGowan for the first time or for the fiftieth, everyone seemed to have gathered for the same reason, which was to have a good night out. This is particularly apt at this time of year, since Fairytale of New York – a seasonal hit for his former band, the Pogues – is still a permanent fixture of pub jukeboxes at Christmas, even though it is now nine years since it reached No 2 in the charts and five since he parted company from the rest of the group.

Since then MacGowan has put together the Popes, with whom he recorded his 1994 album, The Snake , and is currently working on a follow-up. It was the new, unreleased songs that made up the bulk of the first half of the set. The first of these, Paddy Rolling Stone , set the mood for the evening, with the Popes coming on like a cross between an Irish showband and a Louisiana Cajun hoedown – MacGowan commanding centre stage, while guitarist Paul McGuinness and fiddle player Keiran Kiely looked as if they were almost waltzing together as they played beside him, and Tom McManaman thrashing his banjo to the right.

Most of the new songs were in a similar vein, but the one that really stood out was Lonesome Highway , a powerful love song reminiscent of Van Morrison’s garage band Them. It was not until MacGowan sang The Broad Majestic Shannon , though, that pint glasses were held aloft and continued to wave through other familiar classics, such as Dirty Old Town.

There was no Fairytale of New York this Christmas. Instead, MacGowan rolled out the new single, Christmas Lullaby , which was written in the same tradition but shares its bar stool with Nick Cave and Tom Waits rather than Kirsty MacColl. Throughout it all this festive crowd looked like such a lively, happy throng that they really did resemble a load of drunken maggots, happy to be stirred up by MacGowan.