"Here's a happy one," Pogues singer Shane MacGowan slurred into his microphone after the accordion had wheezed the last lullaby notes of "Kitty," a ballad about a prisoner kissing his sweetheart goodbye before being whisked off to jail for a very long time. Summoning a modicum of lightness and strength amid the gloom and doom surrounding him, MacGowan swayed into "The Sunnyside of the Street," a song that was neither as breezy nor sunny as it sounded.
As the veteran eight-piece Irish folk-punk band carried the tune aloft on a featherbed of tin whistle, mandolin, banjo, and acoustic guitar, MacGowan sang about boarding a train with a "heart full of hate and a lust for vomit" after witnessing "children without no shoes" in Rome and "bodies in Bombay."
Romance and ruin - the latter, especially, caused by copious amounts of booze and bad luck - have been at the bruised, bilious heart of the Pogues' work and their checkered history for 25 years now. If Wednesday night's nearly two-hour, 26-song slog through the reunited band's bacchanalian tales of revelry and escape proved anything, it was that the heart of the Pogues, battered though it might be, was still stubbornly beating.
During the first (not quite sold-out) show of a two-night stand at the Orpheum Theatre, the full spectrum and range of the band's powers were on peacock-proud display - a jubilant clatter of ancient Celtic reels and waltzes clinking pint glasses with pub-crawl punk, and even a tender love song or two tossed in for good measure.
At the epicenter, attired in top hat (an impish flourish that set off his plain stage uniform of black jacket and slacks and white shirt) and tottering from what appeared to be the effects of a prodigious day of drinking, MacGowan was, inevitably, a mess, but his legendary insobriety hardly merits mentioning anymore. Sadly and somewhat perversely, a lurching gait and wrecked demeanor are what's expected of him, and from him. Certainly no one expects MacGowan to write more songs as heartachingly lovely as "Love You 'Till The End," which tin whistle player Spider Stacy wonderfully sang after MacGowan had staggered offstage for the second time.
In a remarkable display of constitution, habit, or both, MacGowan was somehow able to maintain coherence and muster fervor while singing the band's extensive back catalog. His guttural, sour growl of a voice was well-suited to numbers like "Dirty Old Town" and gave coarse flavor to the crisp, impeccable musicianship of his clear-headed cohorts flanking him.
Gimme Danger, a Boston foursome led by ex-Dropkick Murphys guitarist Marc Orrell, opened the show with a hard-hitting, half-hour set of lean, tough-minded barroom punk.