"Shane MacGowan is unable to perform," read the flyers greeting the crowd just inside the entrance. Some fans of the notorious booze-soaked bard and erstwhile lead singer for the Pogues were clearly disappointed. Others were not at all surprised. Personally, I wasn't buying it. "So what?" I asked, "That's never stopped him before." According to a publicist in the press tent, Shane had some "visa problems" and wasn't able to attend. Yeah, sure. What, was his Visa card limit too low to cover his bar tab?
Welcome to the 1999 opening show of the annual traveling music event, the Guinness Fleadh (pronounced "flah," it's Gaelic for festival). As it turned out, the mush-mouthed MacGowan wasn't much missed — there was just so much music (over two dozen artists playing on three separate stages simultaneously), so little precious time (the ?Frisco Fleadh was curtailed to only seven hours, thanks to a curfew in Golden Gate Park, compared to the 12-hour show in other U.S. cities) and increasingly less and less available space on the grounds (the park's Polo Fields may have contained the estimated-as-high-as-40,000 attendees, but it didn't facilitate their moving from one area to another) that it was impossible to catch even one song from every act, let alone find the time to visit the crafts and spoken word and digital interactive booths. That was the Fleadh's only flaw.
Fortunately, there was the Guinness (Gaelic for elixir of the gods), which flowed freely, frequently and not-so-inexpensively (20-oz. plastic cups only at $6 a pop). With its namesake Stout, along with its products Harp lager, Caffrey's medium ale and the non-alcohol Kaliber the only brews available, the Guinness Fleadh stands as the first and only outdoor festival where beer-drinkers are forced to consume some of the world's best beers. And those of us who actually prefer quaffing this stuff were simply in heaven.
And the weather was as dark and cool as an imperial pint of Guinness itself — a suitably Dublin-like day, completely overcast and a wee bit on the chilly side. So the summer-in-San-Fran climate only added to the Celtic quality of the event, and it sure beat the alternative of baking in the unforgiving sun, as many of the fair-complected Irish and Irish-Americans in attendance certainly would have done.
So what about the music? I'm getting to that, just let me grab another beer. Okay, first of all, the line-up alone (including Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, John Lee Hooker, Ben Harper, Dave Alvin, Luka Bloom, the Saw Doctors, John Prine, Joe Henry, the Young Dubliners and Martin Sexton, among others) represents the best of timeless Irish and American roots-based folk-rock — not a poseur in the bunch, unlike the alt-flavors of the month who tag along on those high-concept Lilithpalooza festival tours. Granted, there are no women on the list of names, but that's an anomaly of this particular concert; besides, lesser-known acts like Eleanor McEvoy, Shana Morrison (Van's kid) and Marie Therese did perform earlier in the day.
Of the music I did manage to catch between beer and bathroom lines was Joe Henry and his band, who built upon the buzz of his new album, Fuse, and built up a good bit of a crowd as well at his noon set on the VH1 Stage. This secondary setting was more like a tented club compared to the humongous main stage, where a fragile-looking (and under-mic'd) John Lee Hooker nostalgically ran through his boogie-by-numbers set like it was a museum piece.
Not so roots rocker Dave Alvin, who packed that tent as he delivered a simply incendiary set of "two kinds of folk music" (acoustic & intimate and electric & dance-inducing), performing selections from his excellent Blackjack David album of last year, as well as such old favorites as "Jubilee Train" and "Fourth of July" to raucous applause. This was easily the best and tightest set of the day. Think Dave's got some Irish in him?
Elvis Costello, limited to half the time of his usual two-hour-plus show, contributed a festival-friendly set, favoring his familiar rock tunes that haven't been played much on his current tour, such as "Every Day I Write the Book," "What So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?" and "Pump It Up." In addition, he and accompanist Steve Nieve performed the appropriate "The Long Journey Home," the Costello-co-written (with Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains) title track of the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the PBS Irish in America miniseries.
Headliner Van Morrison had one of his occasional off nights (actually, days), as he stumbled around towards the rear of the stage and sometimes mumbled his way through such classics as "Moondance," "Jackie Wilson Said" and "Gloria," as well as newer material like "Back on Top" and "The Burning Ground." The songs were there, but the performance wasn't quite.
But then, by last call at 6 p.m., most of the crowd was a Guinness-filled stumbling, mumbling mess themselves anyway. Shane would've felt right at home.