Review of concert at 1999-06-05 - San Francisco, CA, Polo Grounds in Golden Gate Park (Fleadh Festival)
Wall Of Sound, 1999-06-07
- Andrew Strickman


Costello, Morrison Kick Off Fleadh Festival

June 7, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — As more than 25,000 music fans shuttled through makeshift gates into Golden Gate Park Polo Fields on Saturday (June 5), the tenor of the 1999 Guinness Fleadh's opening day was already being set. "I'm not here for the bands," said one semi-inebriated fan at the rousing hour of 11:30 a.m. "I'm here for the experience."

And for those people who'd experienced the Guinness Fleadh's first West Coast incarnation in the summer of 1998, such a statement would be almost appreciated. Over the course of last year's 11-hour concert in the late-June sun of San Jose, Calif., music and beer fans were treated to one of the best outdoor festival shows in many years — both musically and in sheer spectacle (no line for beer, or for porta-potties).

Unfortunately for festival organizers and concertgoers, 1999 was not the year for a smashing repeat performance. Early June in Golden Gate Park is most frequently marked by cold, foggy air shooting over the treetops from the adjacent Pacific Ocean. Saturday was no exception. People who had dressed according to the inland temperatures nearing 75 degrees, were forced to buy sweatshirts and sweaters from onsite vendors. And in tandem with the clouds and cool temperatures, the trimmed-down seven-hour concert never quite got off the ground.

Sure, there were rousing sets turned in by second-stage bands like Ireland's the Saw Doctors and the Young Dubliners, but for the most part, artists performing on the main stage were lacking in verve and excitement what the crowd was lacking in energy and warmth. In fact, the most rousing set turned in by any main stage act came early in the day when 80-something blues legend John Lee Hooker enraptured the crowd with old standards, and more onstage banter than he's delivered over the course of many recent shows. He even suggested that the assembled thousands make the pilgrimage to the landmark blues club in San Francisco that bears his name for, "a little boom boom tonight at the Boom Boom Room."

But Hooker's appearance was all too brief, and the artists who followed — Ben Harper, Elvis Costello, and Van Morrison — couldn't continue offering up the same type of energy. All three main stage rockers turned in disappointing sets. Harper, a normally incendiary performer, couldn't move the crowd with his bluesy folk rock. Costello (joined by frequent collaborator Steve Nieve), whose voice wrapped lovingly around his classic tunes, from "(I Don't Wanna Go to) Chelsea" to "Oliver's Army" and even a cover of Lennon and McCartney's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," seemed to forget that a festival crowd of 25,000 is less likely to embrace the nuances of an all-acoustic set than a 750-person club crowd might. By the time Van Morrison took the stage, bringing full-circle a main stage afternoon that was begun by his daughter Shana and her band, a good portion of the crowd had already started filing out. The cold and lack of musical fire had sent them away. Admittedly, Morrison did get the remaining crowd moving with a string of hits, from "Moondance" to "Gloria," but at this point in the aging rocker's career, his greatest gift is the way he connects with his music and with the audience. In such a large venue, neither seemed apparent.

Thankfully, those who chose to venture over to the alternate stages — one dubbed Irish Village, the other sponsored by VH1 — were treated to some terrific, shorter sets from Irish nationals, American traditionalists, and the occasional blending of the two.

The Saw Doctors, an Irish party band with the best-selling single in that country's history (take that U2), gave the huge ex-pat audience exactly what they wanted: Sing-along anthems with soaring melodies, rousing harmony, and beats that anyone could dance to. On the Village stage, the Anglo-Irish trio Too Cynical to Cry (guitar, standup bass, and talented vocalist Mairéad MacMullan) proffered their Frente-like acoustic pop to a completely engaged audience, and proved that you can sound like Frente, but actually create interesting music — something that Australian band never quite accomplished.

While a huge crowd had their fingers crossed that former Pogue and present-day rabble-rouser Shane McGowan would actually make it on stage for his 5 p.m. set, possibly reprising his rowdy, lush-life set from last year's Fleadh, the singer never appeared. Official word was that his travel visa was denied. Instead the crowd received a tight, fluid set from folk legend John Prine. Earlier in the day, roots rocker Martin Sexton turned in a similarly passionate set in front of a small, but thankful crowd.

It's likely that with warmer weather, this year's opening day of the Fleadh would have been a more enjoyable experience all around. Regardless, promoters should be advised that even in rain, a crowd can be moved to scream and shout if the quality of performance is worthy. Let's hope next year returns with the grace of the festival's 1998 memory. — Andrew Strickman


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