Festivals were made for moments like this: Finishing his hour-long set at Saturday's Guinness Fleadh, Van Morrison invited Elvis Costello to the stage, and the two traded verses on Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said," a song Costello often has covered in concert.
What made the collaboration thrilling was how obviously unrehearsed it was. You could see Costello, in a black fedora and suit perhaps bought from the same rack as Morrison's similar get-up, looking to the Irish soul icon for his cues, then happily delivering as Morrison repeatedly threw him the spotlight like a volleyball player setting up a teammate for a spike.
Their improvised harmonies on the `ching-a-ling' refrain were imperfect and transcendent. Then Morrison kept Costello on stage for a raucous version of "Gloria" that featured Costello giddily echoing Morrison's "G! L! O! R! I! A!'
That was the obvious highlight of an exhausting, satisfying, muggy day of music at this year's edition of Fleadh, a major improvement over the 1998 version. That inaugural local edition of the Irish-themed festival took place on a scorching June day on the Arlington International Racecourse infield, where a lake caused claustrophobic bottlenecks and a ban on bringing your own water doomed parched festivalgoers to waiting in long lines for bottles costing $3.
At this year's event at the Chicago Motor Speedway at Sportsman's Park, a water shortage was the least of about 28,000 festivalgoers' concerns — and not just because outside food and drink were allowed. With ominous gray skies, stormy weather reports and little shelter in sight, the stage was set for Fleadh to become Floodh. But Irish eyes were smiling on the festival because although drizzle appeared sporadically, the skies never opened up.
Even so, Friday's deluge left the turf spongy when acts began appearing at noon, and by late afternoon the infield was a mud pit that snatched off festivalgoers' shoes with a victorious sucking sound. The new setting also lacked the pastoral charm of Arlington. The backdrops were a crane towering above the half-built stands intended for the new speedway, a high barbed-wire perimeter fence that gave off a prison vibe, and the neighboring Hawthorne Race Course, where — strangely enough — Billy Ray Cyrus would be performing after the day's races.
Nevertheless, Sportsman's Park was the superior fairground. The mud notwithstanding, moving among the three stages was much easier without a lake obstacle, and the New York- and London-based promoters took other steps to rectify last year's problems.
The most obvious upgrade was removing the tent from the second stage, the VH1 Stage, meaning that people who wanted to see and hear acts such as John Prine (looking spry after a bout with cancer), Shane MacGowan (as drunk and emaciated as ever), Beth Orton and Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band didn't have to cram into a small space. Announcing the schedule ahead of time and posting it was another plus, though laminated passes listing times and locations cost $5 — even though the organizers had said they'd be in the $2 range.
The ultimate test of such a festival is how much good music you can hear, and Fleadh provided an abundance. Early on the second stage, New York's three-piece Candy Butchers carried the power-pop torch with their tight harmonies, strong melodies and driving rhythms that suggested a more aggressive Crowded House. Also shining there were Ireland-to-Nashville transplant Maura O'Connell, who applied her rich, sympathetic voice to acoustic guitar ballads, and Dublin's Eleanor McEvoy, who enlivened her singer-songwriter fare with varied rhythms and her own fiddle solos.
On the main stage, Lucinda Williams turned her deeply personal songs into publicly shared experiences. She sang "Right in Time" as if in a reverie over magic moments with a lover, and the crowd swayed along. Vocally, she seemed a bit restrained at first, but the rasp returned as she belted the bluesy "Still I Long for Your Kiss," and her band responded in kind, shedding the politeness that characterized last September's Park West show.
Costello also faced the tough task of wowing a big crowd with a format he used at Park West. His only accompaniment was his longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve, whose flourishes drove strong, stripped-down arrangements of early Costello songs "Talking in the Dark," "Accidents Will Happen" and the ever-tense "Watching the Detectives" — but whose cocktail-like tinkling undercut the brittleness of "Inch By Inch."
Two songs from Costello's 1998 album with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory, were well-played but sport such subtle, winding melodies that they seemed to waft above the audience. Costello doesn't write mass sing-alongs anyway, so although his voice is as powerful as ever, once you got much distance from the stage, the spare music couldn't compete with the chatter.
Morrison's set began as if it were the Van Morrison Revue: He sang the opening verses of "Moondance," wandered off stage as his seven-piece band traded overly tasty saxophone, organ and guitar solos, and returned just in time to finish the song. But he and the band found their groove as they performed the new "Back on Top" and more of the horn-driven rhythm-and-blues that characterizes his recent output.
In his black outfit and shades, Morrison stood stiff like a statue, flicking his fingers to the beats and looking as if he were about to order a mob hit. But his pure voice remains a treasure; only he could make lines from James Brown's "Sex Machine" sound like they were the gospel.
After the Morrison/Costello finale, Hootie and the Blowfish seemed a bit defensive. "I can't believe we have to play after Elvis Costello and Van Morrison," awe-struck singer Darius Rucker said.
In fact, Hootie does what it does quite well: Their harmonies are strong, their playing is tight, they've written some catchy songs, and they know how to work a crowd — though Rucker relies too heavily on butt-wiggling. On the down side, Rucker's impassioned singing can sound like bellowing, too many melodies meander, and the band is resolutely middle-of-the-road.
At one point, Rucker got into a hostile exchange with a heckler and told the crowd, "One misconception about Hootie and the Blowfish is that we wanted to be this big.... If you're not having fun, get the (expletive) out." Rucker had a point: Relief for this fellow was just a stroll through the mud away.