The first news of this beautiful day was bad news: Van Morrison would not be playing Boston's first Guinness Fleadh after all. Call it the ointment in the Fleadh. The mercurial Irishman was not on the Boston bill at the onset, but signed on a few weeks ago. Fans who trekked to Suffolk Downs Saturday were greeted with a tacked-up announcement that Morrison was back in London suffering from "exhaustion" (that peculiar, if ill-defined, disease rockers are prone to) and was told by his doctor he couldn't board the Concorde. "We have no details," said co-producer Liam Lynch, "except he was under strict doctor's orders."
Moxy Fruvous, the Canadian pranksters-cum-roots rockers, had some fun with this early on the main stage, singing about drinking at the Fleadh while "Van Morrison [is] in the medical ward." Van or no Van, fun was the operative word during this 11-hour festival of music — Irish-centric, but not exclusively Irish — played out on three stages. The more traditional musicians — Liam Clancy, Tommy Makem, Eleanor McEvoy — tended to be heard on the second (Cablevision) stage and the third (Irish Village) stage, though the Eileen Ivers Band brought Celtic sounds to the main stage early in the day. She rode the Irish seesaw — from melancholic and contemplative to exuberant and upbeat — whipping out jigs and reels, prompting two of the cute girls near the stage (ages 7 and 9, we'd guess) to step-dance. At times like this, you feel that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.
It isn't, of course, and Shane MacGowan, the former Pogues singer-singer, now of the Popes, is there to remind us of that. MacGowan, seeming in better shape than he's been in years, uncorked a rip-snorter of a set, closing the second stage festivities. In song, he dragged us through mud and blood, he cavorted with hookers and junkies; he took us to dirty old towns and lonesome highways. There was, as always, a raggedy sense of glory, shards of light peeking through the rubble and refuse. MacGowan always seems surprised that this wonderful noise surrounds him, and doubly so by the fact that he is its creator.
At the same time, Elvis Costello (the new headliner, with Morrison off the bill) played the main stage. Our colleagues report Costello was in his crooner incarnation, wearing a scarf, playing guitar with Steve Nieve on piano. He asked "Have you been to the movies lately?," and sang Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "What Do You Get When You Fall in Love?" as he does in his cameo with Bacharach in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. He later did the Charles Aznavour song "She," which he sings on the soundtrack of Notting Hill. He did a batch of pre-1985 songs, bantered about "Radio Sweetheart" being the first song he ever recorded. As usual, he embedded "Jackie Wilson Said" in it. The crowd seemed most dead, fidgety during ballad "Shipbuilding," but came alive when he started "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," responding to his "Oh, I used to be disgusted" with "Oh, why's that?" As usual, crowd pleasers came from his first three albums, including a roadhouse blues version of "Pump It Up."
Singer-guitarist Richard Thompson, performing with a band that included his son Teddy (signed to Virgin as a solo artist), was a highlight, playing razor-sharp songs of love and loss — mostly the latter, dueting with his son on Tim Finn's exquisite "Persuasion" and achieving nirvana with "Tear-Stained Letter." Matching Thompson's intensity, in a punk/Celtic context, was Boston's Dropkick Murphys, joined by fiddler Johnny Cunningham. They were the perfect stage-setter for MacGowan, who blew out the doors while looking non-plussed by it all.
The Saw Doctors and Hootie & the Blowfish were the comfort blankets of the festival: warm, cozy, good time rock 'n' roll, with the Docs' sound tinged by country and Hootie's by funk. With its approachable and undemanding pop, Hootie & the Blowfish are the Huey Lewis & the News of the '90s. Beth Orton contributed a pensive, erotic, and graceful set. New York's Black 47 scored with its uptempo, Americanized, politicized Celtic rock, putting more emphasis on good times than bad. Triumph over struggle.
At festivals, artists often perform less of their nuanced, or downbeat, material, due to the broad-based crowd they're playing to. Thompson said as much backstage ("Suicide songs and festivals don't really mix," he noted wryly) and McEvoy added, "You keep it pretty uptempo and you have to do it a little bit slower — even just walking around the stage. Playing in the daytime, too, is psychologically coming from a different place. More upbeat, less mellow."
Veteran blues guitarist and singer John Lee Hooker, seated in a chair, was not particularly upbeat, but he was mellow — in a growling, gritty, he's-earned-it way. It was deliciously lazy mid-afternoon music.
The weather was perfect for the 28,250 in attendance and the site worked well — port o' sans lined up like the Droid army, stages separated enough to avoid sonic collisions, plenty of Guinness and free water. In the Village marketplace, there were Irish sweaters, Irish literature and ... body piercing. (Body piercing may be the true international language of youth.)
Yes, Morrison's absence was a severe disappointment — especially as credible sources insist Morrison was in town this week. It's a credit to the quality of the Fleadh lineup that you can roll with this and have a great day regardless. Or, as Thompson put it: "The Fleadh is a celebration, an old-fashioned hootenanny, a get-down-with-own-your-bad-self thing."