I’ve seen and played hundreds of concerts, my very first being ZZ Top at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, PA with my brother when I was 13, my very last being Gene Ween at the B Side Lounge in Boulder, CO last month. Both were impressive (and funny) for different reasons, although watching a girl next to me and Nate from Ego vs. Id throw a hefty bag of pot at the feet of newly-sober Gene Ween was not funny.
Anyway, what’s interesting to me after so many years of experiencing live music is that I can think of and then answer the question “what’s the best show you’ve ever seen?” in about a tenth of a second.
It was December 23rd, 2007 and I had just traveled around Europe for the first time, living mostly on bread, prosciutto, olives and cheese and staying exclusively in hostels, where I met lots of diversely remarkable young people and heard many snores that words can’t describe.
Italy was where I felt most at home, not really because I’m part Italian but because I used to teach at an Italian-immersion preschool in San Francisco and learned a lot of Italian on the job. Rome was a great place to wander the streets for a dozen hours at a time, accidentally finding such notable sights as a sanctuary for street-cats and a church museum where thousands of skeletons, including children’s skeletons, are used to decorate the walls and ceilings.
Barcelona was magical too, especially La Sagrada Familia. However, in all honesty the entire trip was just a lead-up to seeing the Pogues, fronted by the somehow-living Shane MacGowan himself, at RDS Hall in Dublin my last night in Europe.
Waiting in line outside, hundreds of young Irish men got drunk and sang songs like “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” by heart, waiting to see their hero. I befriended a Japanese guy about my age who spoke barely any English besides “Shane MacGowan,” “Clash,” “Misfits” and “I buy you show poster.” And he did buy me a show poster, which was at least 30 euro.
Inside the venue, the same young Irish Pogues-fantatics started singing “Shane-Ohhhhhh,” “Shane-Ohhhhhh,” “Shane-Ohhhhhh,” as if the event they were waiting for was a crucial soccer match and not a rock concert. I was right behind the rabid fans, about ten rows from the stage, and loved it.
MacGowan finally came out in a top-hat, looking at least twice his age because of 30+ years of alcohol abuse, and his speech was almost indecipherable. But the reason he’s a living legend truly isn’t just because of the Keith Richards-esque question “how is that guy still alive?” It’s that Shane McGowan led the life of a troubadour: well-versed in the literature of heavyweights like James Joyce, Lorca and Jack Kerouac, MaCgowan made his lyrics as moving and menacing as a pubcrawl with a drink-addled, destitute old Irish war-veteran who’d lost at love and life. And at an extremely young age, MaCgowan made you believe he’d already experienced that fatal darkness too.
At the Pogues show I saw in Dublin, you *knew* MaCgowan had lived that life…and would’ve been dead 20 years ago if he hadn’t found the security of stardom. But beyond the nostalgia and myth, the Pogues’ music that night in December, 2007 — from “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” whose refrain of “let me go…let me go” hit me deeply knowing I’d be back in America in the morning,” to “A Pair of Brown Eyes” — was unforgettable. Every song was well-executed and full of timeless punk spirit, proving that the Pogues truly were and are Ireland’s best and most relevant rock band ever. (Sorry, U2. The wardrobes, stage setups and marriages to supermodels can’t help you.)
As the final encore, at right about midnight, the Pogues introduced guest vocalist Sinead O’Connor and launched into “Fairytale of New York” with Sinead and Shane sharing vocal duties. Even better, when McGowan started singing about Christmas eve, it really was Christmas eve. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place, Irish or not.
So that’s my #1 concert experience. What’s yours?