As lead singer of the Pogues, the dentally-challenged Shane MacGowan was one of the most influential Irish musicians to emerge during the ’80s… though his career actually began in the ’70s as frontman for the Nipple Erectors, later simply the Nips. It wasn’t until the formation of the Pogues in the ’80s, however, that MacGowan, along with Spider Stacey and the rest of their motley crew, blended traditional Irish sounds with the fierceness of punk and made some of the best albums of the decade in the process, including Red Roses for Me, Rum Sodomy & the Lash, and If I Should Fall From Grace With God.
After entering the ’90s, however, MacGowan exited the Pogues, and not of his own volition. His heroic intake of alcohol and other, far less legal chemicals led to his dismissal from the band he’d helped form… but, given that his dependability was virtually nonexistent, the Pogies had had little choice.
So what did MacGowan do? He put together a new band called the Popes, and he proceeded to continue recording and descending into full-blown alcoholism as if nothing had changed. The band released its debut album, The Snake in 1995, and MacGowan and company went on the road to support it, which led them to the Montreux Jazz Festival.
While decidedly not jazz by any stretch of the imagination, there was apparently an Irish night at the festival that year, so MacGowan and the Popes were welcomed with open arms… and possibly an open bar, given that the performance, loving committed to video and released via Eagle Rock Entertainment, opens with Shane already in full slur.
With no subtitles available on the disc, 100% confirmation is impossible, but, after rewinding and replaying the beginning of the performance three times in a row, it appears that MacGowan’s introductory words to the crowd are as follows: “Good evening. This is an old track; it’s called ‘Streams of Whiskey’. Thanks for turning up.” (At the very least, it seems safe to presume that streams of whiskey were involved in the concert in some fashion.) Beginning the concert with a Pogues song rather than something from his own new album… say, for instance, the lead-off track “The Church of the Holy Spook”, which doesn’t even feature in the set… seems an intentionally defiant gesture, as if to say, “It may say ‘The Popes’ on the marquee, but I was the lead singer of the fucking Pogues, and don’t you fucking forget it, you fucker!” That’s just a guess, but, you know, he’s Irish, so whatever the intended gesture, at least the profanity is probably accurate.
As you’d expect after a maneuver like that, as well as from someone with only the one solo album to his credit, MacGowan relies heavily on the Pogues’ back catalog through the course of the performance. “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”, “Bottle of Smoke”, “A Pair of Brown Eyes”, and “Sally McLennane” all feature in the set, the latter proving a perfect show closer. He also continues his long-standing trend of performing Irish standards, including “Gentleman Soldier”… but who could’ve foreseen the folk classic “Greenland Whale Fisheries” (possibly but not definitely dedicated “to all you whalers out there”) and Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” making it into the set list?
MacGowan is still full of alcohol-fueled swagger, but one has to thank God he’s a singer rather than, say, a guitarist; during several songs, it’s clear that the mike stand is the only thing keeping him upright. The Popes prove to be a solid backing band (though you’ll play “one of these things is not like the other” when you spot the guy who looks like Slash rockin’ it on the banjo), keeping MacGowan afloat despite his obvious intoxication. Seeing MacGowan performing drunk is nothing new, but this will never be declared a spectacular show; the audience responds enthusiastically, but it still feels like Shane’s going through the motions, performing little more than a rote recitation of lyrics between sips from an omnipresent cup, filled with God knows what. Fans of the man will be pleased to have visual documentation of this portion of MacGowan’s career, but, while his concerts have always walked that tighrope between “total car wreck” and “fucking brilliant”, on this particular evening, he was careening toward the guard rail from the get-go and only stayed in his lane by the grace of the Popes.
These days, MacGowan has reunited with the Pogues and is doing live dates with the group; there’s even a DVD of the band performing in 1998 at the Town and Country Club, with assistance from the now-late Joe Strummer and Kirsty MacColl. If you need to see MacGowan in a live setting, that’s probably the better direction to head.