In 1990, when Vince Power's Mean Fiddler Organisation staged the 1st Fleadh in London s Finsbury Park, there was no shortage of experts who predicted that the venture could never prove successful, financially or artistically. Ten years on, the Fleadh is the biggest and one of the longest-running of the UK capital s festivals; the nay-sayers have long since been proved wrong.
Among the early acts this year, recent HP cover star David Gray was outstanding. Kicking off with a vibrant version of Sail Away , Gray performed material from each of his four albums. The likes of Babylon from his most recent record, White Ladder, sat coherently alongside early work like Lead Me Upstairs . And the ovation he received after finishing his set with a beautiful Say Hello, Wave Goodbye suggested that Gray fever could yet spread to the singer s native land.
Others who impressed through the afternoon included Afro-Celt Sound System and The Frames, while Barenaked Ladies were the surprise hit of the day what they lacked in the calibre of their own music they more than made up for in showmanship: a security guard, for instance, was pulled from his post in front of the stage to assist in their rendition of The Kinks You Really Got Me , while other bizarre and brief covers included Believe by Cher and Celine Dion s My Love Will Go On . On the two other stages, meanwhile, Miles Hunt, Eddi Reader and Luka Bloom all delivered solid performances.
The Fleadh has always tended to feature classic songwriters prominently, and on this occasion Elvis Costello filled that role. Accompanied only by Steve Nieve on piano, he steered clear of both the angst-ridden raucousness of The Attractions and the overly tame textures he has favoured in collaborations with The Brodsky Quartet and Burt Bacharach. Thus, the tenderness of Everyday I Write The Book came across all the more clearly, while an extended version of God s Comic saw Costello taking potshots at Michael Flatley, fake Celtic culture and some of the more absurd elements of the northern peace process.
Elvis music hardly lends itself to the flag-waving singalongs so beloved of festival crowds (and after all, if you want that you can listen to The Saw Doctors). Nonetheless, set-closing versions of Oliver s Army and Pump It Up fulfilled the necessary crowd-pleasing quotient.
Soon, though, it was a case of from the sublime to the ridiculous with the appearance of Ronan Keating. The Fleadh crowd is, to put it mildly, not Keating s natural constituency, though some pre-teen screams suggested that he might have at least humoured the sons and daughters of the good Mojo-reading folk who made up the bulk of the audience. Nevertheless, his performance didn t do much to dispel doubts, comprising the new single Nothing At All , one further solo track, a dull-as-dishwater duet with Brian Kennedy and, bizarrely,
a repeat performance of the forthcoming single.
As the Fleadh entered its final straight, Van Morrison came into his own. From the start of his performance (a medley of Baby, Please Don t Go , Here Comes The Night and Brown Eyed Girl ), it was clear that Morrison was in urgent, vital form. Even on much more laidback material like In the Afternoon , jazz noodlings were kept to a minimum, and Van consistently applied the gift of that incomparable voice to proceedings.
Over on the second stage, Shane MacGowan & The Popes brought proceedings to a close. Though gaunt, MacGowan laid on an impressive performance. The Fleadh is tailor-made for his songs of the Irish emigrant experience, and the crowd went predictably apeshit, particularly during a potent version of Dirty Old Town . There was a certain amount of rabble-rousing (introducing the pro-Republican Skipping Song with the comment this is a song about shooting British soldiers , for instance), but there was sensitivity too, notably in his impassioned vocal on Lonesome Highway (dedicated to long-time girlfriend Victoria Clarke), the intensity building with every repetition of the refrain And if you know/Don t let me go.
By the time things were wound up with encores including The Irish Rover MacGowan s job was done for another year.
A quick sprint back to the main stage made it possible to catch the culmination of The Pretenders performance. Chrissie Hynde was in fine voice, and her commanding stage presence worked wonders on the crowd. The band, meanwhile, were tight and punchy.
Hynde also demonstrated her versatility as she moved from the torch-song subtleties of I ll Stand By You to the earthy sexuality of Night In My Veins . She also took time to deliver a quick Van Morrison impersonation, before coming back for an encore of Brass In Pocket , probably the strongest of The Pretenders raft of classic singles.
This being the tenth anniversary Fleadh, something special was always going to be required to bring proceedings to a close. It came with the re-appearance of Costello, who joined Hynde and her bandmates on a brilliant version of the Nick Lowe-penned What s So Funny Bout Peace, Love and Understanding? .
Another year, another Fleadh. Glastonbury aside, the Fleadh is probably the festival with the greatest significance beyond its musical content. From the start, it established itself as a unique point of celebration for the London-Irish community, affirming an identity which for many years was considered something to be ashamed of. Though anti-Irish bigotry is no longer so virulent, The Fleadh retains its importance as a rallying point, a show of non-political solidarity in the midst of a hostile climate. May it continue for another ten years. And more . . .