SAN FRANCISCO -- The cold, foggy skies felt stereotypically Irish and the
20,000-plus crowd was well-lubricated with the sponsor's dark stout beer, but the kickoff
date of this year's Irish-themed Guinness Fleadh was more than a shamrock fest.
Packed with marquee names such as Elvis Costello, Van Morrison and guitarist Ben
Harper, the daylong Guinness-stickered festival in Golden Gate Park's
oval-shaped Polo Fields, ostensibly a celebration of Irish -- and Irish-inspired -- music,
reveled in everything from blues to rock to jigs and reels to Motown-style R&B and sensitive
The four-date Fleadh (the name means "festival" in Gaelic) is in its third year of touring
the States and will hit Chicago, Boston and New York over the next three weekends.
Last year's tour featured sets by Irish pop act the Corrs, Irish singer Sinead O'Connor,
British guitarist/singer Richard Thompson and reunited Los Angeles punk-rockers X.
Costello, an Englishman whose given name is Declan McManus, got the shivering
crowd to its feet late in the gray afternoon Saturday with an hour-long set that included a
healthy smattering of his greatest hits presented in a stripped-down format.
Playing acoustic guitar and backed only by longtime collaborator Steve Nieve on grand
piano, the former angry young man of punk warmed the huddled masses with spirited
selections that included his early hits "Alison" (
HREF="http://www.sonicnet.com/artists/clip.cgi?track=%7Ehh-XXXXXX%2F0003475_0101_00_0002.ra">RealAudio excerpt) and "Accidents
Will Happen," as well as "Oliver's Army" (
HREF="http://www.sonicnet.com/artists/clip.cgi?track=%7Edd-XXXXXX%2F0054634_0303_00_0002.ra">RealAudio excerpt) -- the
anti-British-occupation anthem that proved to be an appropriate choice for the occasion.
Many of the acts on the festival's two side stages made joking references
to things Irish. Singer/songwriter Eleanor McEvoy lamented, "Ireland
would be such a great place if they just put a roof on it." But most
performers trafficked in decidedly non-Gaelic forms of music.
Jokey Canadian band Moxy Fruvous played lightweight rock confections in the Irish
Village tent and bade the audience hello with a hearty "Good afternoon, drunken American
bastards." Former Blasters leader Dave Alvin played a raucous set of hillbilly rock in the
VH1-sponsored tent. Later, American songwriting legend John Prine played his
troubadour folk to a packed tent, and, on the Irish Village stage, Boston singer/songwriter
Martin Sexton crooned acoustic pop songs such as "Where It Begins" from his recent
The American album.
For the second year in a row, the day's true Irish rock powerhouses turned out to be
Galway, Ireland's Saw Doctors. They played a frantic Celtic-inspired set of uptempo
electric jigs and reels to an overflow crowd heavy with dancing fans in towering
beer-glass-shaped Guinness hats. The Saw Doctors -- owners of the biggest-selling
single in Ireland's history, "I Useta Lover" -- did not disappoint the partisan crowd that
seemed to know every lyric to the band's anthemlike tunes.
A small makeshift stage was plopped down into the muddy ground amidst snaking beer
lines and Greek sandwich stands. There, Orla and the Gas Men -- a seven-piece local
group of traditional Irish musicians -- brought a little hometown flavor to the surroundings
after blues legend John Lee Hooker's set.
"I would like to have seen more Irish music here," said singer Orla Morrison, a
32-year-old child-care worker originally from County Cork, Ireland. "But if you look
around, a festival in Ireland would be like this also, with blues and rock and folk and
Morrison hopped onstage to sing her rendition of the Irish jig "Sayonara" by the Emerald
Isle's Pogues -- whose Shane MacGowan missed his second scheduled appearance at the
festival due to visa problems. Meanwhile, the music on the main stage segued from the
incendiary guitar jams of blues-rocker Ben Harper to a break tape of Aretha Franklin
Singer Van Morrison, a true Irish legend, closed the festival with an hour-plus set that
was heavy on old hits and good cheer -- two qualities that are not a given at the often
irascible crooner's shows.
Wearing a dark gray suit and matching porkpie hat, the singer led his soulful
seven-piece band through a string of his R&B-flavored hits, including "Moondance,"
"Days Like This" and "Cleaning Windows." Bookending the set were renditions of
Morrison's latest single, the jazzy "Back on Top" (
HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Morrison,_Van/Back_On_Top.ram">RealAudio excerpt), and his earliest
hit, a swinging take on 1965's "Gloria" from Morrison's former rock group, Them.