Pogues : London Brixton Academy

Not mawkish, not cloying, just a time when you're happy to drink, smile at everyone and be glad to be alive...

When Shane MacGowan was kicked from The Pogues a decade ago drunk, desolate and out of control, he appeared to be in a hurry for an appointment with the grim reaper.

Through years with his patchy outfit The Popes and a slow-drip into semi-obscurity his refusal to become another of rock’s premature dead has become a triumphant battle of endurance.

And though the Pogues carried on for a time without their incendiary, talismanic pissed-up leader, without him they were like a cigarette without a match.

Tonight’s show, part of a weeklong get-together that will inevitably extend as long as MacGowan keeps showing-up, is much more than an attempt to cash in on his obstinate resilience. It’s a reminder of some of the most essential sing-along punk songs ever written (don’t be fooled by any Irish trad-rock tag), played by those who wrote them in the way they were supposed to be played. And unlike other hoary old veterans who crank it up again and again for the lure of filthy lucre, The Pogues sound just as visceral and vital as ever – if a little more tattered round the edges.

McGowan is a revelation. A little paunchier than a diet of pints of martini should allow and wearing the same suit he was given a week before at the start of the tour, he looks for all the world like a gloriously debauched Brendan Behan, gripping the microphone unsure whether he wants to fight or fuck it. Between songs he is incomprehensible, but during them he is note perfect, spitting out every word with the trademark deep-throated bark and venom he could never summon for the The Popes.

The band are incredible, whip-snap tight and ferocious in their drive, looking like lounge rats who have just beat the shit out of the Bad Seeds without spilling their drinks. They guide MacGowan through this greatest hits set – ‘A Rainy Night In Soho’, ‘Thousands Are Sailing’, ‘Fiesta’, ‘Sally MacLennane’, ‘Dirty Old Town’, ‘Turkish Song Of The Damned’ – though for all their charged musicianship they need him as much as he them.

Ten years ago this show would have been an excuse for republican rabble-rousing with a few ex-pats mindlessly flying tricolours and mumbling about how well the boys were getting on with their mainland offensive. Tonight, post-ceasefire, post September 11, it’s simply a celebration. Not mawkish, not cloying, just a time when you’re happy to drink, smile at everyone and be glad to be alive. And yes, they did ‘Fairytale Of New York’. And yes, it was magical.

Paul McNamee