Guinness Fleadh Concert Serves Up Intoxicating Sounds

Beer-sponsored rock fest drowns crowd in overflow of heady music.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- If you were at the Guinness Fleadh on Sunday, chances are you missed some unforgettable sets during this final show of the four-stop touring festival.

Nonetheless, wherever you were, that was the place to be.

Inundated with a steady and often overlapping stream of performers on four stages -- 38 acts in all, from headliners such as folk-rockers Sinead O'Connor, Tracy Chapman and an apparently saturated Shane MacGowan to such second-stringers as Paul Brady and John Martyn -- audience members had to move faster than the speed of sound to avoid missing their favorites.

There just wasn't enough time in the day to catch everyone. While L.A. punk icons X were rocking the tent, Irish folkie O'Connor was belting out her Prince-scripted ballad "Nothing Compares 2 U" on the main stage and sullen neo-folkie Hayden was plying the tiny crowd at the Naya tent with his intimate, lo-fi tunes.

Then there was the Chumbawamba show that coincided with the Saw Doctors gig, or the Alejandro Escovedo show that just happened to run directly into Wilco's set.

If you were lucky, you were standing near the Bay Guardian stage when it came time for Shane MacGowan, who seemed the perfect live mascot for the annual beer-stained rock festival.

Delivering unintelligibly garbled diatribes between songs, most of which sounded like, "Isshh time fer shom rockinroll, fuckhars," he proved quite capable of wrapping his slurring vocals around a melody. Opening with a classic from his former band the Pogues, "If I Should Fall From Grace With God," he and his able associates bounded through MacGowan tunes new and old to a hopping, moshing mess of a crowd.

But no matter whom you caught, the Fleadh had a lot for everyone, from opener British folkie Billy Bragg to L.A.'s own punk pioneers in X.

"For a festival, it's incredibly eclectic," said John Doe, bassist and vocalist of L.A. punk icons X. "There's lots of other great bands, you're right in it, flying around; you feel a little homeless, like, dare I say it, a rock band."

If Doe felt homeless on his current touring schedule, the crowd at the Fleadh felt decidedly at home. Stretched out on blankets across a long field fronted by the fest's huge, black-tarp-draped main stage, many concert-goers spent the day shifting from stage to stage -- an hour here, a half-hour there.

Perhaps they were there to see Wilco, who performed early in the day with Bragg on a couple of tunes from Mermaid Avenue, a forthcoming Woody Guthrie tribute album, then returned to the stage mid-afternoon to a roaring, happy crowd. Wilco's later set showcased a couple of new tunes -- one a Dylanesque rocker introduced with Hammond organ inflections -- along with selections from Mermaid, including the gorgeous, rambunctious "California Stars" (RealAudio excerpt), and such chestnuts as the poppy "Monday" off Wilco's Being There and the lilting "New Madrid" off Anodyne, the final record from the band's forefathers in Uncle Tupelo.

Just as likely, however, festival-goers were halfway across the field watching the brooding folk of legendary guitarist and singer/songwriter Richard Thompson.

On tunes such as the sad, moving "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," off 1991's Rumor and Sigh, the crowd watched with rapt attention, swaying quietly then bursting into furious applause. Midway through his set, he invited young singer/songwriter Terry Thompson ("No relation," Richard said) onstage for a few duets, including a song about the British class system entitled "I'll Crawl Back Under My Stone." "It's not Jerry Hall's theme song," Richard joked.

Just a half-hour earlier, Thompson was on the main stage, performing his classic "Wall of Death" with country-folk vocalist Nanci Griffith.

And no matter your positioning, the crowd was a constantly moving mass of tanned skin, stumbling shirtless guys surrounded by piles of empty cups of Guinness and groovin' hippies dancing and spinning as if the Grateful Dead were still around.

For concert-goer and Dubliner Lisa Duffey, 24, no one could beat Irish sing-along poppers the Saw Doctors (who record for Paradigm, a parent company of SonicNet). "They're cool tunes. We're leapin' around, havin' the crack. That's Irish for having a great old time," Duffey said. "They were the best band of the evening. They were awesome!"

And despite the festival's folkie theme, it was the punk power of X -- with their original lineup, including stoic, so-so-cool guitarist Billy Zoom -- that stole the show. While the music moved at a manic pace, Zoom stood there, one knee cocked forward, a half-smile, half-sneer across his face as he surveyed the crowd.

And his fingers were blazing.

"I'm starting a label, building a studio, then I'm outta here!" Zoom said earlier in the day. Doe, meanwhile, said he would be back working on a new John Doe Thing record for release on an unconfirmed label in September.

Still, when it comes to the power of alcoholic beverages, no one beat the shambling, dentally impaired ex-Pogues singer MacGowan. And Zoom agreed. "They had to carry him onstage at [a previous Fleadh gig]," Zoom said.

Though MacGowan didn't have to be carried onstage at this Fleadh, he certainly had his share of handlers, including one roadie whose job, apparently, was to watch MacGowan's cigarette and make sure he didn't burn himself with it.

When the ash burned too low, he would knock it out of MacGowan's hand and stomp it out.

Seemingly oblivious to anything but the tunes, his smokes and his pint, MacGowan still managed to capture the spirit of the day: good music and freely flowing taps.