Aside from a surfeit of the sponsor's brew, the third annual Guinness Fleadh Irish music, arts, and culture festival, held June 26 at New York's Randall's Island, was a dry affair, especially compared to the rain and mud that plagued the fest last year. Trimmed to a single day, the Fleadh (Gaelic for "festival") still offered some 30 musical acts, ranging from Main Stage headliner Elvis Costello to the smaller VH1 and Village Voice stages, closed by, respectively, Shane MacGowan and Moxy Fruvous.
Like last year, the all-day Fleadh — which earlier in the month made stops in San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston — spanned a broad range of traditional and contemporary Irish music. Among this year's performers were Atlan, Eileen Ivers Band, Kila, Frances Black, Eleanor McEvoy, and the Saw Doctors. But the event also again embraced more American music forms, represented by the likes of the Candy Butchers, Joe Henry, Shawn Mullins, Hootie & the Blowfish, and John Prine (who sounded fully recovered from neck cancer).
An early afternoon Main Stage highlight was Lucinda Williams' exceptional set, which was marked by Elvis Costello's surprise duty on backup vocals and acoustic guitar on two songs. Costello's own stellar performance with longtime keyboard accompanist Steve Nieve featured two songs from his recent collaboration with Burt Bacharach, including the new version of "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" from the latest Austin Powers film.
Fleadh returnee Richard Thompson focused his set on material from his forthcoming Capitol album "Mock Tudor"; unlike last year's solo turn, he showcased a terrific band that included his son and recent Virgin Records signee, Teddy Thompson, on guitar and backing vocals. During the performance, though, VH1 inexplicably projected snippets of old Donnie & Marie Show footage on big screens mounted on both sides of the stage, hyping its Behind The Music series. The cable channel's ever-present "Music First" slogan was further diluted by six satellite tents, including a "Save The Music" digital jam station that allowed users to mess around with different electronic instruments, and a "Street Games" tent where hysterical participants taped installments of the channel's new trivia show — both activities which were at odds with those intently listening to the music.
But in all, this Guinness Fleadh was indeed a festival. With organizers not using Downing Stadium as the Main Stage, as they had in previous years, the crowd seemed more compacted. Fleadh officials estimated the audience total at near 27,000, although some head counters put the figure at half that.