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'80s Pogues return, in all their stormy glory

The original lineup of the Irish folk-punk band plays the first of three nights at the Wiltern.

October 20, 2006|Natalie Nichols | Special to The Times

The state of the world is enough to drive you to drink, so what better time for the Pogues to reappear? On Wednesday, the famously working-class, politically minded band that plays Irish folk with a punk-rock heart brought its original lineup, including legendarily hard-drinking frontman Shane MacGowan, to L.A. for the first time in more than 15 years.

Taking the Wiltern LG stage to the Clash's "Straight to Hell," an indictment of U.S. soldiers who fathered and abandoned Vietnamese children, the octet opened this first of three scheduled nights with "Streams of Whiskey," MacGowan's rumination on Irish poet-playwright and independence advocate Brendan Behan, a Pogues touchstone.

The 105-minute set was drawn mostly from their recently reissued first five albums and was, strictly speaking, a nostalgia trip. But the songs' notions of struggle, sorrow and unbending defiance were undeniably relevant.

The Pogues celebrated Irish culture and addressed Irish-English relations and immigrant experiences in originals and traditional numbers often ratcheted up to a feverish, twitching pitch. Wednesday's show alternated between poignancy and fervor with such favorites as "The Old Main Drag," "Dirty Old Town," "A Pair of Brown Eyes," and "If I Should Fall From Grace With God."

Young faces glowed happily alongside older ones in the packed house, for the popularity of such modern like-minded acts as Flogging Molly has introduced the Pogues to new generations. The audience swayed, raised cups and roiled boisterously to the lilting, mournful-to-celebratory sounds expertly woven by the musicians. Several times, MacGowan disappeared and his mates took vocals, resulting in such memorable moments as Philip Chevron's bitter, urgent "Thousands Are Sailing" and the folk-rocker "Tuesday Morning," sung by Spider Stacy.

Despite MacGowan's history of alcohol and drug problems, his literary sense of street outrage and humor has never totally drowned. Though only 48, his affect was more deliberate and slower than his bandmates' high-energy demeanor, but he was engaging and stayed upright, even after twirling around and around in a magical shower of confetti snow with singer Ella Finer during their encore performance of "Fairytale of New York."

His singing, which has always been gruff and semi-unintelligible, contrasted jarringly with the more mellifluous musical passages, but it remained the catalyst that makes the Pogues iconic.

The whiskey and beer flowed, the cheering grew louder, but the atmosphere was one of blissful cutting loose rather than total mayhem. The show reminded folks that freedom isn't something they're granted, it's something they must take for themselves. And at least for a couple of hours they did.

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