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October 4-10, 2006

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Hoist a Pint

The Pogues come roaring back with reunion tour and five sea-worthy reissues

By Greg Cahill

They fought their way out of a King's Cross pub to international acclaim. By demonstrating that the spirit of punk could live in traditional Irish folk music, critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine has opined, the Pogues "were one of the most radical bands of the mid-'80s," attracting Elvis Costello (who produced the band's second album and married their onetime singer Cait O'Riordan) and the Clash's Joe Strummer, who produced their album Hell's Ditch.

But the drunken fury that at the heart of the Pogues is found, not in high-profile co-conspirators, but in frontman Shane MacGowan, whose self-destructive alcoholic binges swamped the 2001 documentary If I Should Fall from Grace from God: The Shane MacGowan Story. It is the erratic MacGowan who best embodies the band's politically charged lyrics, punk swagger, poetic soul and boozy, brawling demeanor. And while that stark film portrait left many expecting MacGowan wasn't long for this old world, he's still standing and heading up a reunion of original members that brings the Pogues to the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco on Oct. 9, 10 and 12.

The lineup includes MacGowan, Philip Chevron, Darryl Hunt, Spider Stacy, Andrew Ranken, Terry Woods and James Fearnley.

Meanwhile, Rhino Records has reissued five of the band's best recordings, each remastered and expanded with additional tracks.

The raw and rowdy pleasure of the Pogues' unadorned 1984 debut Red Roses for Me—with its memorable "Streams of Whiskey" and "Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go"—is bolstered by six bonus tracks. But it is their sophomore release that proved the charm. The 1985 Costello-produced breakthrough album, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, with the exceptional ballad "Dirty Old Town," gets an extra five tracks here, including the strong "London Girl" and "The Body of an American."

Of course, the real winner came four years after their debut when superstar producer Steve Lillywhite captured the band's rough-and-tumble spirit on 1988 masterwork If I Should fall from Grace from God. That disc found MacGowan contemplating the tenuous state of mortality while displaying his maturing songwriting skills on such classic tracks as "Fairytale of New York" and "The Broad Majestic Shannon." The jaunty, theatrical sea shanty "Turkish Song of the Damned" is quintessential Pogues. The bonus track "Sketches of Spain"—an upbeat Klezmer, polka, ska, mariachi hybrid—shows just how skilled this former bar band had become by the end of the decade.

Lillywhite returned a year later for Peace and Love and tempered the band's traditional Irish sound even more, adding swing-inspired horn arrangements to the opening instrumental track "Gridlock." The overall result is a finely tuned album that is the band's most accessible—a far cry from the brawling fight songs of the Pogue's first two releases. Still, the album's five bonus tracks include a rowdy cover of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman."

The 1990 comeback album Hell's Ditch, helmed by Strummer after one of the band's more turbulent periods, is downright cheerful and even poppish thanks to the lead off track "The Sunny Side of the Street." The band sounds uncharacteristically relaxed throughout with MacGowan slurring his words on the ironic Celtic love ballad "Sayonara" (reportedly the tale of a US soldier and a Thai hooker) and the wistful "Summer in Siam." The album—the last fronted by the firey MacGowan—picks up seven additional tracks, all of which are equal to the strong original material.

With sea shanties making a comeback, thanks to Hal Wilner's recent all-star tribute to pirates and drinking songs Rogue's Gallery, the time is ripe for a Pogue's revival.

After all, who's got better sea legs than Shane MacGowan in these unsteady times?

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