Halfway through the Pogues‘ St. Patrick’s Day show at New York’s Terminal 5, the band kicked into “London Girl,” a bouncy bonus track off 1985’s classic Rum Sodomy & the Lash. Frontman Shane MacGowan, wearing a black sweater with a cigarette in his hand, clutched the microphone, snarling the refrain: “This could be our final dance / This could be our very last chance.”
It may have been. The show was the final night of the Irish rockers’ 10-date, six-city A Parting Glass With the Pogues tour, and their third night in New York. The band has said it is almost certainly their last U.S. run, due to the increasing costs of bringing an eight-piece band on the road and MacGowan’s unpredictable performances. “We can’t always entirely trust Shane to deliver the goods,” whistle player Spider Stacy recently told Billboard.
MacGowan, grizzled and largely toothless at 53, hasn’t released a new Pogues song since 1990’s Hells Ditch. He slurs his words heavily and refuses any interviews or television promotion. He’s sad to watch, considering he’s a songwriting genius who was an innovator to pair traditional Irish instruments with a punk rock attitude. Joe Strummer, who filled MacGowan’s role when he quit the band in the early Nineties, called him “one of the best writers of the century.”
If it indeed was the band’s last U.S. show, it was more of an Irish wake than a funeral. Before the band went on, ambulances were already parked outside the club and a woman could be seen getting carried out by security. After openers Titus Andronicus, the band sauntered onstage to the blasting music of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” with Stacy taking his mic wearing a Mick Jones-style cap and military jacket. They kicked off with three swift punches: rollicking singalongs “Streams of Whiskey” and “If I Should Fall from Grace With God” and the sweeping ballad “The Broad Majestic Shannon” played in front of a starry background.
MacGowan had his moments throughout the night. He soon slurred a heartfelt “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” even impressing his bandmates. “Thank you Shane,” Stacy said, looking impressed. “That was lovely.” MacGowan offered a thumbs-up, grabbed a clear iced drink and wobbled offstage for a break.
When he left, the band proved they remain a highly charged machine that should continue playing when MacGowan can’t. Stacy delivered a stellar take of their 1993 sentimental rocker “Tuesday Morning,” recorded after MacGowan’s departure, surprisingly their highest-charting U.S. hit. They later revved-up the crowd with the instrumental “Repeal of the Licensing Laws” and guitarist Phil Chevron later belted an impassioned “Thousands are Sailing.”
MacGowan returned for the night’s biggest sing-along, “Dirty Old Town,” and “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn,” featuring time-shifting, crash-and-burn rhythms. As the band hit the last note, he threw his stool to the ground, and then picked up his mic stand and impaled it into the stage.
The show’s two-encore homestretch was even more raucous, featuring “Sally MacLennane” and the classic standard “The Irish Rover” dedicated to late Dubliners singer Ronnie Drew. Returning for a second time, MacGowan emerged with a bottle of white wine, howled “Paddy Works on the Railway” and then 1988’s “Fiesta.” He imitated his same wobbly gestures from the original music video while Stacy banged his head aggressively with a beer tray. MacGowan guzzled half of the bottle of wine, and as the band played the final notes, picked up a tray and started banging it into his head, too. It felt completely wrong to watch, but also like the only way the band could go out.