Maybe the flashing red disc hanging from a cord over Shane MacGowan's heart sent electric pulses to his vital organs. Perhaps the electric fan at his feet -- turned to full blast on a frigid night when clubgoers at Avalon kept their coats on -- helped him remain vertical. Surely the seven stellar musicians surrounding the singer were a bedrock when it came to concert-related details like starting and finishing songs.
Whatever the explanation -- and it's likely to remain as mysterious as the foul babble that passed for stage banter -- the famously wasted Pogues frontman was in fine form on Thursday during the first of four Boston shows loosely pegged to St. Patrick's Day. Last year at this time MacGowan was bearded, bloated, and ghostly pale. He lurched and wheezed his way through set lists, inspiring little confidence in a future for the Pogues.
Twelve months later he looks a whole lot healthier, if not exactly hale, and delivered a performance that was as remarkable for its musicality as for its shambling spirit.
The enduring poetry of the Pogues' music was front and center, as the punk-ish din of youthful rebellion has become the sound of survival. The sloshing bottle of wine MacGowan gripped seemed more prop than pacifier as the 49-year-old Irishman wended tenderly through "The Broad Majestic Shannon," spewed "Dirty Old Town" with debauched soul and spot-on pitch, and conjured a strong, steady croon for "A Rainy Night in Soho." He left the stage from time to time, ceding the spotlight to whistle player Spider Stacy , guitarist Philip Chevron, and multi-instrumentalist Terry Woods, who each took a turn at the microphone. The band's elegant, careening clatter shone in the absence of MacGowan's magnetic pull.
But the singer always returned, fresh cigarette and new container of booze in hand, and for the first time in a long time it didn't seem like a miracle. The show grew tighter and more spirited, not messier and more tragic, as the nearly two-hour set wore on -- culminating in a stunning run of "Star of the County Down," "Poor Paddy," the Dubliners' "The Old Triangle," and salty, waltzing "Fiesta." MacGowan didn't miss a beat, even as the tempos raced and he and Stacy bashed themselves on the head with sheet metal. After all these years it's going to take more than a little self-inflicted percussion to take the Pogues down.