Forget the Pixies, Police and even the Stooges: few foresaw a full-fledged Pogues reunion because few imagined frontman Shane MacGowan ever in a condition to rejoin anyone short of his maker.

Forget the Pixies, Police and even the Stooges: few foresaw a full-fledged Pogues reunion because few imagined frontman Shane MacGowan ever in a condition to rejoin anyone short of his maker. MacGowan, the hardest living man in show business, spent many of his years post-Pogues in a haze of drink and drugs, so seeing him on stage at the Congress Theatre Monday night, surrounded by the classic line-up of his bandmates (no slouches themselves in the hard living department), was nothing short of a St. Patrick's Day miracle.

Chicago likes to celebrate St. Patrick's Day early and often, with numerous parties and binges leading up to the official big dye-the-river-green parade. Indeed, a good number of Pogues fans, predictably, looked like they'd already been working on building up their tolerance levels for at least a few hours as they wobbled around the Congress, clearly amped to be seeing a band many no doubt thought they might never see again. And when MacGowan himself wobbled and limped on stage, they looked up at the famously weathered man and welcomed him back like he was part hero, part brother.

Of course, MacGowan (looks aside) appeared to be in OK condition, and sounded that way, too. If his between song banter was nearly indecipherable -- was that a joke or a band member introduction? -- his vocals, mouthful of words and all, were surprisingly on point.

Listening to MacGowan sneer and snarl his way through Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town" was a sharp reminder why so many in the folk community first bristled at the Pogues' early '80s arrival. But like any number of bands who rock the boat, the Pogues have long since become standard-bearers in their own right. As the group careened through songs such as "Streams of Whiskey," "If I Should Fall From Grace with God," "The Body of an American" and "The Irish Rover," it was hard to hear them as anything less than classics themselves, traditional music for anyone raised on punk who had their horizons expanded by groups like the Pogues.

Besides, the Pogues were always more punk in spirit than execution, and the group's Monday night set (the first of two shows) underscored the importance of musicianship as well as attitude. Co-founder James Fearnley dug into his accordion like it was a more typical garage band accoutrement, while fellow co-founder Spider Stacy, almost always at McGowan's side, made playing the tin whistle seem cool.

Never mere Irish folk rockers or even Irish punk iconoclasts, the Pogues also reminded the rabidly enthusiastic crowd how diverse their vision was, encompassing everything from exotic Middle Eastern melodies in "Turkish Song of the Damned" to Mexican music in "Fiesta," the latter of which featured Stacy and MacGowan slapping thin sheets of metal against their heads to the punctuate the frenetic beat.

Most inspiring was how, battle scared and beaten-up, the Pogues still looked and played very much like a band. Yes, MacGowan and his incongruously brilliant lyrics were a vital component to the performance, as was his ragged appearance. But even he'd likely be lost without a band as tight as the Pogues keeping him in line. If MacGowan is the band's resident genius, the other guys in the group can clearly hold their own, as witnessed by Phil Chevron's moving "Thousands are Sailing," Terry Woods' fiery "Young Ned of the Hill" and even Stacy's "Tuesday Morning."

It was music for the ages played by the prematurely aged for a thankful audience appreciative of the price the Pogues paid to get where they are.

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