Wednesday, 29 May, 2024 in Live Reviews, Music

Into Live Music: The Pogues at Red Roses For Me

Concert: The Pogues – Red Roses For Me 40th Anniversary Performance
Venue: Hackney Empire
Date: 3 May 2024


I was fifteen when I first heard Streams of Whiskey and, even then, I knew I’d remember the moment forever.  I listened to the record, as I always did, on the player in my bedroom, the contents of which already betrayed the fact that I had absolutely no idea who I was. Posters of The Clash and The Sex Pistols sat next to Oasis artwork and books about Bob Dylan and REM. I knew, without a doubt, that music was going to be my life’s companion, but I had yet to find that thing – the thing that would speak to me directly and claim me for its own. The moment I heard Shane MacGowan’s blistering voice and the marching drums heralding a call to arms, I was home. His words felt like a window into a future yet unknown, the promise of adventure and comradery, a welcome tonic given the ongoing divisions and tensions in my life in Northern Ireland at the time. Back then, when people talked about the future, there was always a sense of barely hidden fear, as though it was tempting fate to hope that the days ahead would be better than the ones behind.

Listening to this record, and all other by The Pogues beyond that moment, ignited something exciting and magical. Their songs were stories about life and really living, of connecting and celebrating, of feeling big emotions and letting others know, whatever may happen as a result. That felt indescribably liberating to a young man who’d been brought up to hide who he really was for fear of what others may think.   

Fast forward to 2001, which saw me at University in Stirling, hundreds of miles from Derry and all its wonderful and terrible associations. Outside of lessons, I was a man of leisure and, thanks to my student loan, I now had pockets full of borrowed money and only one thing on my mind. Learning more about music in any way I could. 

Relentless gigs, religiously reading NME and buying, buying, buying records that taught me more about the world than a lecture hall ever could. During those University years, I chose to live on the basics in order to nourish my musical soul; eating food out of packets to help fund my obsession. 

When I came across Red Roses for Me in a record store on Bank Street, Edinburgh I was immediately struck by the album cover. The shot of the band members with a painting of JFK in the background communicated a seriousness and sense of conviction which was undeniable. There was no doubt in their mind that they meant business. The inclusion of JFK in the centre ground felt particularly striking, a reminder of their reverence for Irish American history that clearly still meant so much to so many.  

Although miles from Ireland, my mind was transported back to the countless Irish homes I’d visited in my lifetime where JFK’s face was framed alongside family members and the Pope himself. In my mind, it felt natural to place The Pogues alongside, such was their importance to my life and my understanding of myself, my values, my ideals. Of course, I played the album as soon as I got home. 

Although the opening track accordion and guitar seemed surprisingly subdued given the inherent vitality of the band, I soon discovered that patience was the key. Within thirty seconds, MacGowan’s voice burst out of the speakers like a bullet train, transporting me directly to the landscape of London with stories of legendary drinking sessions and storming the BBC. The lyrics name-checked locations across the city cementing the importance of these for the band and its followers. The unmistakable, rousing mix of the punk and the traditional left my heart thumping and pumping with Irish pride. Once again, the lyrics served as reminders to see my heritage as a source of joy instead of fear or suspicion.  Being a fan of The Pogues helped to reverse the age-old Irish instruction to “keep your head down.” Fueled by their passion for life, I felt inspired to make damn sure that I looked up and faced the world. Red Roses for Me, in particular, helped to reinforce that attitude to life with its meshed punk attitude and repurposed traditional Irish tunes.   

The years rolled by and suddenly it was Friday 3 May 2024 and I was about to board a plane to London to see my musical heroes in an unbelievable twist in their already incredible story. My emotions oscillated between unbridled joy and a strange sense of abstract horror at the prospect of potential disappointment, an emotion deepened by the Hackney mist upon arrival. Could this iconic venue deliver another show on par with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong and Christy Moore and many others? Would the band, accompanied by any number of musical guest stars, be able to generate the same energy, the same magic that had wound itself around the lives of millions across the world? Would the remaining Pogues, minus Cait O’Riordan and Andrew Ranken, be able to conjure up the spirit of the album gifted to the world forty years ago? With a heart full of hope, I shook off the damp of the life-worn streets with determination and headed straight for the venue to get the lay of the land.  

The luck of the Irish led me shortly after into the direct path of James Fearnley who appeared visibly excited about the prospect of the evening ahead as he shared a cigarette break with Tom Coll from Fontaines D.C. during the pre-show soundcheck. Greeting me, along with a small throng of grateful fans, with warmth and open ears, they let slip that there could be close to thirty musicians on stage in the coming hours. The atmosphere was one of tense unpredictability. Tom was replacing Andrew Ranken for the evening with The Pogues traditional drum set up of standing tom-tom, snare and symbols in keeping with the original sound of the album. 

Moving amongst fellow fans as we filed into the Hackney Empire, it was impossible to ignore the snatches of conversation that gave voice to the creeping fear and anxiety about the potential impact of reimagining such well-loved songs. With sweating hands and jumpy knees, shouts of “yip-ay-aye” could be heard as people took their seats. The anticipation was palpable as the dark glow of the auditorium lights set the scene for what would either become a piece of musical history or a poor substitute for the real unbridled sound of the original album.  

First up with support for the evening were The Deadlians a five piece from Dublin. It has been widely reported that the band have been an integral force over the last number of years within the fertile Irish neo-trad movement. Described as psychedelic folk punk, the front man Sean Fitzgerald treated his fiddle as if it were a natural extension of his body.

Every gesture conveyed the significance of this privilege, and the band’s grace and Dublin brogue delivery ensured that the crowd were supplied with textures and hooks that kept all present focused throughout their performance. The most telling sound from The Deadlians was the pulsing bass and drum intensity that drove their song writing along, mixed with electronic elements that created a modern neb and flow. The band swiftly conjured up prog melodies, distortion and at times elements of jazz. Mid-session, the girl standing next to me mentioned that Sean regularly hosts jam evenings in Ireland’s capital which are said to be impulsive and joyous in equal measure. As their set came to a close, I was left with the impression that there would be more to come from The Deadlians in the years ahead. The band themselves were humble and reflective when I spent time with them later, and spoke freely of their love of London, The Pogues and the eclectic mix of strangers and new friends they had made during their brief time in the English capital.  

The time between celebrating The Deadlians talents and waiting on tenterhooks for the main event was spent quenching thirst and sharing stories. The kinship was undeniably powerful as people of all kinds and minds found shared ground, united in their love and devotion to the band. It’s so rare, and so special, to find yourself so surrounded by your people. To feel so valued and accepted and to be listened to so keenly is not to be underestimated by any means. I saw myself reflected in the tales of others as I listened to similar personal stories about lives spent loving The Pogues.  I felt more myself in that moment, in that room, than I had in a long time. The very fact that we were all there when it seemed as though the band had ended with the passing of their touchstone, still felt unreal. In fact, when Spider Stacy led the band onto the stage like a gang prepared for battle, the expressions of some fellow fans still displayed that sense of bemused disbelief, as though they were watching a band that had indeed come back from the dead.   

This evening’s band consisted of both youth and wisdom to reproduce the 1984 epic. There was a natural swell in the standing stall members as though preparing for what could be delivered. Spider announced: “it’s lovely to see you all here tonight, I hope you’re going to enjoy yourselves” before Tom Coll, James Walbourne (covering Phil Chevron role), James Fearnley and The Pogues brass section played the opening bars to Transmetropolitan

Images: Justin McNicholl

The sound from the band swept The Empire and filled the audience with joyous impulsiveness that culminated in the release of a gleeful explosion that would remain for the entire evening. It had been almost ten years since most of the crowd had heard any version of The Pogues live. This lengthy period of time, along with the extremely sad passing of Shane and Darryl Hunt, had created a thirst for the band and the songs that no one (bar, perhaps The Mary Wallopers) had come close to quenching since. 

The addition of Fiachra Meek on uilleann pipes and Jordan O’Leary on banjo was a stroke of genius. Recreating the studio sound produced by Stan Brennan back in ‘84 ensured the material of the group was significantly enhanced. The Battle of Brisbane and Greenland Whales Fisheries catapulted the audience back to the band’s glorious performances during their near three decades on the road. Kevin Smith (aka Kojaque) provided lead vocals on Boys from the County Hell, his spirited vocals resulting in absolute bedlam. This was the first moment of the evening when the heat and sweat of the crowd could be felt by those in the stalls. It was clear that it meant so much to Kojaque to take the lead vocals and he left the stage whistling with a beaming smile.  

Next up was rising star Iona Zajac, who embraced Poor Paddy with all her frightening vocal might. The calling of “I was wearing” was sensationally harmonised by the crowd, replicating the raw passion and energy of a football tribe on the verge of winning the Cup Final. The evening motored on with contributions from members of The Rails and Stick in the Wheel which ensured that album tracks and expanded songs from the remastered album were given their pride of place on the stage. 

Due to the extensive and undeniable talent present, there were always going to be moments in the concert destined to have the audience talking for months to come. The first of these was Nadine Shah’s haunting and powerful rendition of The Auld Triangle. The intensity of Nadine’s delivery, along with Holly Mullineaux’s bass, resulted in the audience holding their breaths for dear life as they witnessed the power and endurance of her vocal capacity. At the end of this performance, Spider himself echoed the crowd’s appreciation, by bowing and embracing her as no doubt this audience will do at her own future shows. One could be forgiven for feeling that the spirit of Sinead O’Connor is alive and well in Nadine Shah.  

Brigid Mae Power was up next with The Leaving of Liverpool, a tribute to her father Vince Power who booked The Pogues many times down the years. Junior Brother rightfully achieved the adoration of the audience with Sea Shanty, a touching tribute to Andrew Ranken who is currently suffering with COPD and couldn’t be there. Andrew’s wife, who I met briefly after the concert, clearly appreciated the evening. Despite his unfortunate absence, The Clobberer remained in all our thoughts.  

The second moment of the evening to go down in history as simply outstanding was the contribution of Ella and Violet from The New Eves. These two tremendous performers embraced Waxie’s Dargle, their power/punk ethic replicating the spirit and zeal of the song’s original chaotic hand-held music video. Ella and Violet danced and swung each other around with a youthful freedom that appeared contagious and induced the crowd to call out in unison “Ahhhh”, shouted with intensity and passion. Ella and Violet piercing vocals flicked a switch that brought a new fever to an already electric evening. Post performance, Spider quietly stated: “Shane that’s for you”. We all knew exactly what he meant. Their rendition would have filled his punk heart full of joy. In a larger way it felt like it was for us all, those who have journeyed with The Pogues for years, booked train tickets, taken long car journeys and hitched to gigs. The evening was starting to come to a crescendo that helped us remember the first time we had heard this music and the undeniable zeal for life that the band brought to us all which continues to this day. Shane was hopefully pleased with what he helped to influence and create in that moment.   

Fortunately, the concert was not over yet. The performance of Kitty by John Francis Flynn reproduced the beauty of his album version on Look over the wall, see the Sky which Glasgow record store Monorail rightly made their album of the month. As recounted by John in an interview recently, Shane’s mother introduced Kitty to Shane as a youngster in Tipperary and had been a longstanding family ballad. John was fully aware of this history, and the importance of making Shane’s family and the people of his parish proud, and he did not fall short. 

Sean Fitzgerald returned to the stage for Muirshin Durkin and Daragh Lynch from Lankrum then joined Spider on vocals for Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go. This performance was much anticipated by many members of the audience as the song was rarely performed by the original group. The re-emergence of Iona Zajac for the final banshee cry prickled the skin of those sitting all the way in the back rows of the auditorium with even the burling security guards looking on in awe. 

To calm the worries of the locals, Jim Sclavunos from the Bad Seeds made his way to centre stage, standing straight as a pin to deliver his interpretation of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. His quiet precision meant that none of the horrific lyrics of mutilation and dismemberment within the song were missed as the crowd stood respectfully to listen.  As if the night hadn’t been glorious enough, the last trio of songs resulted in Spider returning to lead vocals for two performances of Streams of Whiskey, much to the crowd’s delight. Thrown in for good measure was a captivating onslaught of The Irish Rover, which tore the standing audience members apart with roaring exuberance.  

This review cannot go by without mentioning Jem Finer, the underrated and often overlooked prolific songwriter who graced the evening stage with an immense focus on his hurdy-gurdy. Thanks to Jem’s talent, beautiful songs like Anniversary, Misty Morning Albert Bridge and of course Fairytale of New York will live on as will the memories of this concert. 

Both the audience and performers left the venue physically and emotionally thankful for the work and dedication put into the evening. There was a post-gig meet up at the MOTH Club. Originally proposed as the venue, the sheer demand for tickets eventually meant the move across the street to the beautiful Empire building. Once inside, performers and fans openly mingled amidst the backdrop of wall mounted war memorabilia and checkerboard floors. Celebrities were also in the mix, including Derry girls Siobhan McSweeney and Kathy Kiera Clarke, not to mention the star of the hit Netflix show Baby Reindeer, Richard Gadd.  There was much dancing, singing, drinking, signing of records and photo requests as The Fontaines Tom Coll DJ’ed in the venue corner booth. All in attendance appeared openly filled with the spirit of the evening and many clearly did not want to go home. Instead, they lingered, waiting for the sun to rise over the rooftops of Hackney.  

In the initial comments and reviews, some felt that there was not enough focus on Shane MacGowan. For me, that view is rather shortsighted. It has perhaps never been more clear that The Pogues is more than just one man. Yes, Shane was one of a kind. But he’s still there, living on in every interpretation and re-imagining of the band’s original magic. This once in a lifetime concert highlighted the endurance of the album and all the musicians involved in its creation. None of this would have been possible without the sum of its parts. 

The Pogues will live forever in the consciousness of everyone who ever saw them either live and in person or discovering them much later through YouTube or Spotify. I find it amazing that people are still only now connecting with The Pogues via a love of another band such as the Mary Wallopers, Lankum, Fontaines D.C, Dropkick Murphys, Brogeal and Flogging Molly … to name but a few. It’s clear that Red Roses for Me, when released, became a touchstone for many bands – both then and now.  

Image: @tomtraies

Attending the concert provided another chapter to add to my own Pogues story, one that I know remains far from over. If I’d known that, twenty seven years on from hearing Shane’s voice on Streams of Whiskey in my family home in Faughanvale, Co. Derry, I would be reviewing a Pogues gig, I would not believe you. At that time, as I’ve said, his promise of adventure and a life worth living to the full felt intoxicating. I’d like to think that, at points along the way, I’ve created my own Pogue-worthy stories. Perhaps not the ones that involve the scandal and violence of Pinned Down but I’d like to think I’ve tapped into the heart and beauty of something tamer such as Rainy Night in Soho or The Broad Majestic Shannon. What I do know for certain, reflecting on the evening of Friday 3 May, is that I would lend £10 to any and all of the amazing people that I met from Holland, England, Ireland, America, Canada, Germany, Switzerland so that we can all go Transmetropolitan once again- yip-ay-aye!



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