Costello, Van Morrison, Ben Harper Warm Up Chilly Fleadh Opener

Irish-themed festival's four-date U.S. tour to hit Chicago, Boston, New York over next three weekends.

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

singer/songwriters.

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

pop."

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

tunes.

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.