The Forum, London

Source: The Guardian
Author: Steven Poole
Copyright: © The Guardian 1999

I suspect Shane MacGowan is a born-again fruitarian, and that the only liquid that passes his lips is bottled water. What his terrific performance on Monday demonstrated was a hidden genius for mime, as he staggered onstage bent-backed, leant into an invisible wind at the microphone, spilled fag ash all over his suit, pouted, flicked V-signs at the moshpit, and generally enacted a mashed variation on Jacques Tati – Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.

As in much Shakespearean drama, we had to wait a long time for the protagonist. Beneath a Boschian painted backdrop of four hideous green faces above a fiery cauldron of Guinness, MacGowan’s superlative backing band flamed through some demonically electrified Irish jigs and reels. A titfered bass player looking like an ultra-cool Chris Rea and a poodle-haired electric banjo player posturing astride the stage monitors were joined by amplified squeezebox, electric guitar, drums and tin whistle in a beautifully bonkers noise.

Then MacGowan himself appeared. “Sheuuuaargh,” he declaimed purposefully, making a sign of the cross and thrusting his groin a few times in an efficient gestural precis of Catholicism. He proceeded to sing his heart out, in that yearning chocolate-cement baritone of poignantly doubtful tuning, in a mixture of old Pogues tunes and new devilish folk. Donegal Express and Call Me Paddy Rolling Stone swept by, their spittingly cynical lyrics offset by jaunty rhythms and yearning melodicism on pedal-steel guitar.

MacGowan’s announcements were models of laconicism: “‘S called Lonesome Highway. ‘S a waltz!” he roared, and the band swept into its gorgeous jangly lollop, with soaringly tuneful tremolo picking on the banjo. “I love you, I love you,” MacGowan emoted shiveringly in sodden-gravel yowls. The set climaxed with The Irish Rover, with the mad banjo player diving headfirst into the crowd, while MacGowan coquettishly knocked over his mic stand. Eventually he came back on and asked, “Are you having a good time?” There was an affirmative roar. “Well, fock you, half the world’s starving,” he spat, the lovably contrary old bugger.

It being the Christmas season, he gave an encore that featured a swooning Fairytale of New York, accompanied by an orange-skirted woman commendably uninhibited by her lack of vocal talent. But it was all raucously fine, and the man’s gift for turning bitterness and desperation into something joyously uplifting is undimmed. Let’s remember, as we stuff our faces on Saturday, to wish Shane MacGowan a happy birthday, too.