Having been obliged, more or less single-handedly, to soak up the sentimental excess and dispossessed romanticism of worldwide Irishry for the best part of 20 years, it should not surprise us that Shane MacGowan now resembles some sort of peculiarly ill-used industrial sponge. Pale and puffy -- although suavely attired in black shirt and waistcoat, with an unknotted tie draped around his neck -- the singer/lyricist for the Pogues floated murkily onstage at the Orpheum last night as if borne on toxic currents.
He was given a hero's welcome; this crowd -- shamrocks and Celtics shirts, flat caps and Claddagh rings -- would have cheered him if he'd come on with a cardboard box over his head, or on a stretcher. For hours before the show the cry was going up in the back streets of Downtown Crossing: ''Shane! Where are ya? Shane, you [expletive]!" MacGowan is their Johnny Rotten and their Brendan Behan, and in his shattered snarl they hear the truth. ''Joe Strummer and Shane MacGowan are the two greatest songwriters of our generation!" yelled a thick-necked young man halfway through the show, as if he had just heard some impious claim to the contrary.
MacGowan was clinging to his songs for dear life; eyes shut tight, nostrils gaping, he howled and retched his way through ''Turkish Song of the Damned," with the tipsy carousel of Pogues-music whirling behind him. At the beginning of ''Pair of Brown Eyes" he lurched in too soon, and the seven-piece band -- elegant journeymen musicians all -- had to pause and delicately settle in around him. The tin whistle blew, the accordion wheezed, the mandolin clucked indulgently. The old faces were onstage: Jem Finer, Spider Stacy. ''The Old Main Drag" was stunning, a catalog of degradation that serves as MacGowan's ''Walk on the Wild Side." ''They ruined my good looks for the old main drag . . ." he sang sadly, passing a hand across his swollen face in a burlesque of vanity.
Openers Street Dogs -- flat-capped and tattooed pub-punkers from Dorchester -- distinguished themselves with a storming cover of Billy Bragg's ''There Is Power in A Union." ''Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own," goes the verse, ''Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone"? Well, who does? Shane MacGowan? Not last night. Last night he was speaking for the damaged organs, including the heart.