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Pop Music Review : Pogues Octet Not What It's All Cranked Up To Be

July 16, 1986|RICHARD CROMELIN

Why did it take people so long to figure out you could slam-dance to Irish jigs? Maybe they were just sitting around waiting for the cultural go-ahead that's now been provided by the Pogues, the Irish/English octet that set the crowd on the Palace dance-floor into frenzied motion Monday with the unlikely weaponry of banjo, tin whistle, accordion and the like.

The show concluded the Pogues' first U.S. tour, and the band came into town with a reputation as an anything-goes, hell-raising unit. On top of that, its first American album, "Rum, Sodomy & the Lash," introduces a charismatic singer and terrific songwriter in Shane MacGowan

That sounds like an unbeatable combination, but the Pogues' Palace show didn't live up to it. A punk Clancy Brothers isn't a bad idea really--a combination of the folk-era group's lusty spirit, political content and Irish sentimentality with angry-young-rock iconoclasm and intensity. But the Pogues turned out to be more like a cranked-up Fairport Convention that wasn't cranked up enough.

On the instrumental dance tunes, the band wasn't especially loud, and it was obvious that the Pogues aren't reel rebels. They respect and enjoy the traditional music, play it with amiable spirit, and aren't much interested in redefining it and turning it inside out.

Their strength on record isn't the way they recast tradition, but the way they ease themselves into it without raising a ripple, while regenerating it with a voice that's unmistakably contemporary.

That voice wasn't assertive enough on stage Monday. Instead of the Joe Strummer-like figure he has the potential to become, MacGowan drifted through the show without much interest or intensity. He sang while planted at the mike with his eyes closed, and his main activities were lighting cigarettes, blowing smoke, and displaying his famous rotten teeth to the front-row fans.

On a few ballads his rough-grained voice, thick and warming as good ale, made its presence felt, but it was pretty much lost in the up-tempo songs, and the music itself wasn't raucous enough to convey the spirit of such obscured lines as, "They took you up to midnight Mass and left you in the lurch / So you dropped a button in the plate and spewed up in the church."

That's the irreverent spirit that's helped endear the Pogues to the adventurous new-rock audience, but until L.A.'s contingent catches MacGowan on a better night, they'll find it on the record rather than the stage.

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