It sounded too good to be true: Van Morrison, the Celtic soul bard, added at the last minute to headline the first Guinness Fleadh in Boston on Saturday.
The venerable Fleadh (Celtic for fest; pronounced "flah") was already a perfect fit for a town in love with Irish culture; the prospective addition of Morrison made the event at Suffolk Downs all the more sweet.
Anticipation had been whetted by Morrison's show at the Chicago Fleadh a week earlier, in which he invited Elvis Costello to join him on "Jackie Wilson Said" and "Gloria."
So when it was announced as the gates opened that Morrison would not play because of illness, there was a slight pang of disappointment. But not one that couldn't be slaked by the fine weather, the rich roster of music and the endless kegs of Guinness.
Up to Costello to close the main set, he did so grandly. Accompanied only by longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve and his own acoustic guitar, he brought a kind of reflection to much of his oldest work, just as Bruce Springsteen brought to his own catalog when he began playing it acoustically.
Cognizant of a wide audience that had, after all, just sat through a set from Hootie & the Blowfish, Costello stuck to the familiar, although by slowing down songs such as "Every Day I Write the Book," he seemed to give them a deeper meaning. The folkie approach led to a lot of his more political numbers, too, from "Oliver's Army" to "Shipbuilding," all sounding quite up to date.
He almost apologized for introducing the song for which he won a Grammy with Burt Bacharach earlier this year, "I Still Have That Other Girl." But he was golden in playing the Bacharach-Hal David hit, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," because he is singing it this summer in the hit movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
The Hootie set preceding Costello's began with a more acoustic bent as well, with music from the band's most recent third album. But it closed with the group mixing "I Only Want to Be With You" with the disco hit, "Get Down on It."
The Saw Doctors are always crowd-pleasers at such an event, but a real highlight earlier in the day on the main stage was Richard Thompson, gone electric with a fine band, mixing new songs with classics such as "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" and "Wall of Death."
On the second stage — poised for a late-night romp of the hometown's Dropkick Murphys, New York's spirited Black 47 and the beloved bumblings of Shane MacGowan — there were some gems earlier in the day as well, especially Beth Orton with her wistful, soulful voice.
It was a bit of a hike to the Irish Village stage, but even there, they had some unusual offerings, such as the ringing pop of New York's Candy Butchers.
The Guinness Fleadh, with much the same lineup, plays Randall's Island in New York this Saturday.