The Pogues – review

O2, London

After claiming that their 2010 Christmas tour would be the last of their annual festive dates, the Pogues have, not unpredictably, reconsidered. Well, it would be rude not to break out the mistletoe and wine again: it's their 30th anniversary as a band, and the 25th birthday of Fairytale of New York.

The O2 is an impressive 80% full, and even those at the back are partying like it's 1982. Had any teenagers been here, they'd have had a moment of enlightenment: so this is where Mumford & Sons get their shtick! The younger band have a long way to go before they equal the veterans' flair, however. The Pogues could undoubtedly play The Irish Rover, Dirty Old Town and Sally MacLennane in their sleep – indeed, Shane MacGowan often seems on the verge of dozing off – but every bittersweet note rings with conviction.

Even those who consider the Pogues a bar band who got lucky would have to concede that they play like demons, and all the more so during MacGowan's periodic absences from the stage. Tin-whistle player Spider Stacy and mandolinist Terry Woods, who take over vocals on Tuesday Morning and Young Ned of the Hill, respectively, are the band's engine room and heart, lavishing love on decades-old songs. MacGowan, though, is its soul – the bedraggled star around whom everything revolves. Each time he returns, cigarette clamped to fingers and vodka glass in paw, the audience's relief is palpable.

Five days before his 55th birthday, MacGowan is still busy raising the bar in terms of looking a state. His poison nowadays may well be what drummer Andrew Ranken laughingly describes as "[only] prescription drugs", but years of indulgence have eroded his voice to a sound between a caw and a growl, and he doggedly braces himself against the mic stand. But something inside keeps him going, right through to tonight's penultimate song, Fairytale of New York. Cabaret vocalist Camille O'Sullivan takes the female role, and the two verbally slug it out until they end up in each other's arms, waltzing as snowflakes drift from the ceiling.

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Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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