Review: Shane MacGowan’s birthday celebration – an unforgettable night

Shane MacGowan at National Concert Hall

Shane MacGowan performers at the National Concert Hall in Dublin

It was a night that will never be repeated. A who’s-who of Irish singers and virtuoso musicians joined an array of international stars at the National Concert Hall to remind us all just how great a songwriter Shane MacGowan was over a 20-year period.

Each Christmas may reintroduce us to the brilliance of ‘Fairytale of New York’, but it is easy to forget just how many great songs of misty-eyed romanticism and metropolitan squalor MacGowan has written.

From the spiky punk pop of ‘Gabrielle’ (performed tonight by Spider Stacey of The Pogues, Glen Matlock of The Sex Pistols, Clem Burke of Blondie and New York’s Jesse Malin) to a litany of Pogues classics that include ‘Streams of Whiskey’ and ‘Sally MacLennane’ (sung tonight by Damien Dempsey) or the hopelessly romantic verses that peppered his short solo career, namely ‘Victoria’ (masterfully reimagined tonight by Glen Hansard), ‘The Song With No Name’ (sung by Camille O’Sullivan) and ‘You’re The One’, which was given a show-stopping rendition by Magda Davitt, the artist formerly known as Sinead O’Connor.

This was a night when there were too many highlights to choose but one. For some it will have been Johnny Depp and Bono’s soaring version of ‘A Rainy Night In Soho’; others will point to Cerys Matthews gorgeous rendition of ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’, dedicated to Dolores O’Riordan, or Lisa O’Neill’s fierce injection of anger into ‘Streets of Sorrow/ Birmingham Six’ backed by a band that contained some of the very best of Irish musicians.

The night began by delving into MacGowan’s punk roots with his first band The Nips as Matlock, Burke, Malin, Stacy and session guitarist Paul Cudderford gave a ferocious rendition of ‘Gabrielle’, before Malin had the crowd on their feet for ‘That Woman’s Got Me Drinking’, from MacGowan’s debut solo album, The Snake.

Pogues Terry Woods, Cait O’Riordain and Jem Finer joined Stacy in the night’s second house band alongside Elvis Costello collaborator Steve Nieve, Sharon Shannon, Mick Cronin and Steve Wickham of The Waterboys.

So began a roll call of singers as Carl Barat delivered ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, Damien Dempsey showed himself to be a natural inheritor to many of these songs with a fine rendition of ‘Streams Of Whiskey’ and Cerys Matthews gave an early highlight in ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’.

There were many more to come – from the crowd’s hushed appreciation of Finbar Furey singing prison ballad ‘Kitty’, to Cait O’Riordain singing ‘Haunted’ and Damien Dempsey’s accapella version of ‘Sally MacLennane’.

Joined by Dubliner John Sheehan, Glen Hansard delivered ‘Bottle Of Smoke’ with the energy the lyrics demand before an acoustic version of ‘Victoria’ saw Hansard pair back the song to its bare bones and again showcase MacGowan’s lyrical prowess for putting potent images into a listener’s head – “Down the dirty old streets/ The Angel of the East is calling/ And with a trembling hand/ I open up a can/ I can hear a baby bawling.’

It is MacGowan’s propensity for these story-based songs, such as ‘Fiesta’ (Imelda May), ‘The Body of An American’ (Damien Dempsey) and ‘The Old Main Drag’ (a superb rendition by Lankum), which really resonate. Few lyricists deliver such a cinematic quality to their songwriting in the same way.

Bobby Gillespie, Bono, Johnny Depp, Lisa O’Neill and many more deliver umpteen spine-tingling moments, but a real highlight comes when Nick Cave sang ‘Summer In Siam’, which half-way through becomes a duet as MacGowan arrived on stage in a wheelchair.

This is the tragedy of this maverick songwriter who appeared frail in comparison the sprightly Cave, who himself also turned 60 last year and who fought many of the same demons that have got such a hold of MacGowan.

Still, the birthday boy’s voice remains a thing of divisive beauty as Cave smiles and marvels at the weathered authenticity MacGowan brings to ‘Summer In Siam’ with minimum effort.

A tender ‘Will You Go Lassie Go’ concludes the night as MacGowan gives a mischievous “up the Republic” followed by his unmistakeable rattle of a laugh to an audience that includes Gerry Adams, Neil Jordan, Cillian Murphy, Mundy, David Holmes and Stephen Rea.

Accepting a lifetime achievement award from President Michael D. Higgins, MacGowan looked vulnerable, overwhelmed and visibly moved by the reaction from the audience and those performers that joined in tonight’s celebration. It was that kind of night and one that will live long in the memory.

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