Thursday, March 16, 2023

St. Patrick's Day Flashback to 2006: The Pogues and Scythian

This will be the first year in a long time that I will not be in NYC for St. Patrick's Day tomorrow. The holiday has a special place in my heart as my father marched in every St. Patrick's Day Parade he was able to from the 60's until the Pandemic. In looking back at some old writing, I found this from 2006 and wanted to share it. Reminds me of why I love the city on this day more than most. Cheers, Sláinte! 

The Pogues...In NYC...On St. Patrick's Day

Thursday, March 30, 2006 (original published date)

A few years ago I scheduled a ski trip for spring break during grad school. Having never been out of New York City to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I didn’t think anything of it, figuring I would enjoy the slopes with friends and then party on the Paddies, because that is what everyone does on the greenest day of the year. That weekend, I was rudely awakened to an empty bar’s lousy corned beef, horribly poured pints of Guinness, and it was nothing short of a true Irish disaster. Halfway through the night I swore a personal vow to never again leave the Big Apple on the 17th of March (Well maybe I will check out Chicago once).

“As I came down through Glasgow City, Nancy Whiskey I chanced to smell…”

Having visited the Emerald Isle itself since then, I found out that the rabble rousers living there try to cross the pond to parade up 5th Ave. as well on St. Pats. With that flock I guess I need to now include The Pogues. I never once thought that the kings of Irish punk/folk would regroup and play America, let alone in a place and time when I could see them. The last time I caught the whiskey bottle of a singer known as Shane MacGowan live, he was a bloody mess from falling down and being dragged off stage only 3 songs into his set with the Popes. The fact that the original Pogues could reunite and make it to NYC on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day was too much to pass up. Having heard some Pogues live bootlegs, I knew the show could be dicey, but what are you going to do, say, “Nah, I’ll pass me laddy?”…you lace up your boots and you climb K2.

Lately The Pogues have been embarking on mini-reunions in England and Japan, and anyone who has any knowledge of the Pogues history knows that rocky roads lead to and from this band. Born in the punk soup of 1982 via Shane MacGowan’s belief that the youth of Ireland should reclaim their country’s history by combining the punk ethos with classic Irish folk and rebel songs, the Pogues (or Pogue Mahone as they were called at the time which is Gaelic for “kiss my arse”) were established. The current band (damn close to the original): Shane MacGowan, Spider Stacy, Jem Finer, Philip Chevron, Terry Woods, Andrew Ranken, James Fearnley and Darryl Hunt, small run of shows in the Northeast sold out before you can say Erin Go Bragh and the bars at the Nokia Theater in Times Square were 8 people deep during the pre show.

The Nokia Theater is a far cry from the sawdust on the floor taprooms where fans of the Pogues are used to mumbling their songs, in fact I feel sorry for the staff of the Nokia who need to wipe up every spilled drink due to the parquet floors, slippage and medical bills. The less than sober crowd was a hot bed of old school ramblers on Thursday night, not making the staff’s job any easier. Perhaps the older fans were wiser, realizing that MacGowan’s odds of making it to the weekend shows were slim, but the old male and female punks and rockers were getting anxious by 10pm.

The boys came on late to the strains of the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton”. The Clash and the Pogues are kindred spirits (Strummer even joined the band for a bit when MacGowan left) as the bass lines rolled out so did the Pogues. Looking older, but just as fashionable, they kicked off the show with the bounce fueled “Streams of Whiskey”, MacGowan’s jacketed body and Sarlacc Pit of a mouth, was gyrating and spitting out the lyrics while drummer Andrew Rankin popped the skins crisply. The crowd pogo’ed from the get-go.

“I’m goooooing; I’m goooooing, where the Streams of Whiskey are flowing.”

The hits and good cheer flowed while mountain men jigged with leprechauns. Songs such as the tortured “Body of an American” and the anthem “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” caused some muffled weeps, but the romp of tunes like “Fiesta” and “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” perked up the fire of the crowd like a piece of peat tossed to the flame. The range of sound was broad with flares of ancient Celtic and swing rock mixing with banjos and Spider Stacy’s tin whistles above a plucking electric bass. The music itself rarely becomes angry; rather the players infuse spirits (both kinds) into the playing. MacGowan’s song writing has always been intricate with one rasp cursing the booze or the homeland, and with the next asking for a dram or a return to the family, but such is the enigma of Irish story telling.

“Between the metal Doors at Vine St. I was beaten and mauled and they ruined my good looks for the old main drag”

At the start MacGowan’s voice was laughable as the energy of the crowd drowned out what little words could be understood but as the show progressed a funny thing happened on the way to distillery, Shane’s beauty shined through. A man, who has the Irish charm and song writing skills on par with any, projected that blarney through his broken voice and his disheveled appearance. By the back to back ballads of “A Rainy Night in Soho” and “Fairytale of New York” the crowd were clinging to every word, the power was palpable. From his hearth and his home MacGowan feels every nuance and before Fairytale he declared, “Well, this is your song.” almost flippantly, then managed to amaze. The Irish, as a people, are intimately connected to New York City and this ballad proved jaw dropping. With the fake snow, the dueting female whose name I missed, sang and waltzed with Shane while the NYPD Cops in full uniform who snuck in to catch the tune crowded the doors and gazed at what can only be described as honesty. In that moment “Fairytale of New York” became one of the 10 best songs I have ever seen live.

“I could have been someone, well so could Anyone…”

The Pogues finished but the Irish tunes continued; they played on the bar jukebox and in my dreams. The next morning a brief bagel was followed by standing in the cold sun on 5th avenue listening to the bands from all over the country play their hearts out. From the union leaders to the firemen to the diplomats all were basking in the glow (some albeit drunken) of the marchers stepping in time to the bag pipes and drums. Showmanship took a back seat to the songs as Irish pipes seemed to ring out from all street corners in midtown, floating over a sea of green.

After taking in the parade for a while (and a quick corned beef sandwich) I moseyed with some friends to catch a band called Scythian playing at Stout by Penn Station. While the band set up on the bizarre stage that was narrowly placed over the bar and accessible only by ladder, the crowd gathered smiling with the air of a day off and a beer in hand. Scythian is a Celtic band from Washington DC that made it known multiple times through out their set that the only place they want to be on Saint Patrick’s Day is in New York City, well, join the club.

Unfortunately their 4 o’clock set was delayed extensively due to Leks the fiddle player’s fiddle being broken. While the band waited for a new fiddle to arrive a Pipe and Drum band enter the bar and played for the fired up crowd.

Scythians’ set could best be described as an interactive reel-based frolic, all of the members of the band (the others being Joe, Danylo and Mike) play a variety of instruments and are natural showman, engaging the audience on every number. Leks in particular stands out with his phenomenal playing, even while breaking in a new fiddle he strummed and plucked his way around cavernous Stout with abandon. Sure there was some steam let out of their set by the long delay, but the music and band are so infectious you can’t help but buy extra beers to relax your singing voice.

“I’ve been a Wild Rover for many a year…”

The merriment continued long into Saint Patrick’s night with songs such as “What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor”, “Wild Rover” and the occasional odd rock and roll sing-along cover to get the non-Gaelic in attendance to harmonize. Playing the I-95 corridor Scythian is developing a rabid following along with interwoven playing that is sure to deliver a grand time for all who see them.

As my whirlwind 48 hours of whiskey and tunes began to wind down my fellow patrons stumbled into the street hailing cabs and sloppily kissing, but I’ll have none of it as the pure adrenaline of an out and out party in the left ventricle of the Big Apple has wooed me yet again. 

I’ll be here in ’07, St Patrick, see you then.

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