Preview of concert at Fleadh Festival in San Francisco on 1999-06-05
San Francisco Chronicle, 1999-05-30
- James Sullivan


Costello Puts a Little English On Irish Music Festival
Fleadh brings a diverse lineup for a party at the Polo Field
James Sullivan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 1999

1999 San Francisco Chronicle


Performers at last year's Fleadh, the traveling "Irish'' music festival, included the Mexican American rock band Los Lobos, the dreadlocked Tracy Chapman and the Los Angeles punk group X. This year the lineup includes bluesmen Ben Harper and John Lee Hooker.

Amid such honorary Irishmen, Englishman Elvis Costello (born Declan McManus) seems as Irish as the Lucky Charms leprechaun. He begs to differ.

"My credentials for being on an Irish festival are about as strong as people in San Francisco,'' he says.

Still, he's tickled he was asked. The Fleadh (pronounced "flah,'' it means "festival'' in Gaelic) was one of last summer's most rewarding concert experiences. With Harper, Hooker, Van Morrison, estimable folk singer John Prine and the ever-amusing Shane MacGowan on the bill, this year's version of the fair promises more disposable income well spent. The Fleadh takes place during the daytime Saturday at the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park. On Friday, Costello plays a sold-out show at the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa.

The American leg of the Fleadh spans each Saturday in June, with the Bay Area show followed by layovers in Chicago, Boston and New York. Costello will be performing with keyboardist Steve Nieve, his longtime colleague from the Attractions, the singer's former backing group.

"We're doing all four (Fleadhs),'' Costello says. "Every Saturday we get to have a party.''

He says he'll play it by ear at the festival, improvising a set list according to the mood of the crowd. Performing with just one other musician lends versatility, Costello says. "We can make a fair amount of fuss with just the two of us,'' he assures. "It's not like we're trying to make up for the lack of a rhythm section. The piano is a percussion instrument, don't forget.''

Once considered an Angry Young Man of the new-wave era, Costello has expanded his stylistic palette over the years to include country ("Almost Blue''), avant-garde rock ("Blood and Chocolate'') and chamber music ("The Juliet Letters'').

Most recently he has collaborated with composer Burt Bacharach and thrown himself into the art of interpretation. In 1995 he recorded early rock 'n' roll tunes, jazz-pop obscurities and Ray Noble's 1934 No. 1 song "The Very Thought of You'' for the all-covers album "Kojak Variety.'' This year he has covered Gram Parsons (for a forthcoming tribute record), Charles Aznavour (for the "Notting Hill'' soundtrack) and Dionne Warwick (for the "Austin Powers'' sequel).

The startling breadth of his musical enthusiasm carries over to the types of shows he plays, Costello says. With the Brodsky Quartet, he played Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, the Folies Bergere in Paris and Town Hall in New York, "which I usually associate with jazz.''

"We tried to keep people guessing as to what the piece meant in relation to where we performed. That's always good.''

In Europe recently, he and Nieve played "deserted warehouses, beautiful art deco theaters, old funky cinemas. . . . When we first toured America we played in Tulsa, at a place where Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys used to play. It had absolutely nothing to do with the music we were playing then.''

Some felt Costello's music had absolutely nothing to do with Bacharach's when the two began collaborating a few years ago. In truth, Costello had been covering the celebrated arranger's "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself'' for some time, and he claims that his own early songs "Accidents Will Happen'' and "Just a Memory'' were directly influenced by the Bacharach-Hal David writing team.

"What an adventure this has been,'' he says of his ongoing partnership with Bacharach, which produced the 1998 album "Painted From Memory.'' Most recently, they recorded Warwick's 1970 hit "I'll Never Fall in Love Again'' for the "Austin Powers'' soundtrack.

Told his rendition is "lovely,'' Costello chuckles. "Now there's a word I wouldn't have expected to hear associated with any record I made.''

He performs the song straight, taking its melodic longing seriously. "There's no point in putting any kind of rasp in my voice, to make it seem ironic or something. It's a love song.

"It's a beautiful, perfect thing. Why change it?''

His version of Aznavour's "She'' ("Tous Les Visages de L'Amour'') for the Julia Roberts movie "Notting Hill'' got Costello invited to the premiere. It was one surreal circumstance among many he's had, he says.

In the lobby, the camera crews hollered for him to throw an arm over Shania Twain's shoulder. "I said, 'I've never met her. What if she doesn't want me to?' '' Costello says, laughing.

For "Austin Powers,'' he spent a day on the set. "They're saying 'Right, can you watch Mike (Myers) and Heather Graham dance around?' It's not the worst thing in the world.''

Such velvet-rope glamour has little in common with the outdoor, beer-sponsored Fleadh. The disparity is a pleasure, says the affable Costello.

"I get to do all these magical things. They're each of them great places to go.'' 


Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, John Lee Hooker, Shane MacGowan, the Saw Doctors, John Prine, Dave Alvin, John Martyn, the Young Dubliners and Shana Morrison are among the performers set to appear at the Guinness Fleadh, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday at the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park. Tickets: $45. Call Ticketmaster at (415)


Elvis Costello's performance Friday at the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa is sold out.

1999 San Francisco Chronicle  Page 40