Halfway through his set at the Polo Field in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on Saturday, Elvis Costello paused to squint at the crowd through his horn-rimmed spectacles. "There's a rumor going around that there are some Irish people coming around today," he said, smiling mischievously.
The crowd raised its plastic beer cups in salute. Costello's grin widened. "Well, then, here's a few songs about Ireland." With that, he nodded to pianist Steve Nieve and kicked into the anti-occupation anthem "Oliver's Army."
It was the defining moment of Saturday's Fleadh festival, the annual celebration of music and all things Irish — especially the wares of its sponsor, Guinness, makers of the dense beer-is-food brew.
Only a fraction of the estimated 25,000 people strolling among three stages and some 21 bands were first- or second-generation Irish, but that was incidental. On Saturday, everyone from the British Costello to Yankee Ben Harper was wearing the green. Ale and lager flowed like rivers from dozens of kegs around the Polo Field, but as the pint count mounted, the crowd only grew more robust and friendly.
Wonderfully weird juxtapositions abounded: bagpipers playing full tilt next to the main stage during Harper's deafening set and actually being heard; Irish poet Siobhan Campbell reading serenely while a digital jam session raged in the next tent over.
With ex-Pogues singer Shane MacGowan stranded outside the United States because of visa problems, it was up to Costello to — play the role of friendly rabble-rouser. He was more than up to the challenge, even though he and his pianist/sampler Nieve were dressed in deceptively conservative black suits and patent leather shoes.
From the opening chords of "Accidents Will Happen" to the closing chant of "Pump It Up," Costello dove headfirst into the Fleadh spirit — and spirits, in a plastic cup kept within easy reach on a nearby monitor. Releasing his inner punk, he made faces at the crowd, yelped lyrics and hammered at his acoustic guitar as if it were a battered Stratocaster and he were still that snot- nosed kid from Stiff Records.
The high energy lasted through the set, from "Alison" and "Veronica" to "Everyday I Write the Book" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
Even famously moody headliner Van Morrison got into the Guinness groove. Hard-core fans had the precious 90-minute experience of watching their hero dance, laugh and issue a litany of his famous stream-of-consciousness midsong raps.
Suave in a charcoal-gray suit and matching hat, Morrison and his seven-piece band jammed their way through crowd favorites such as "Moondance" and an encore performance of his 1965 hit with Them, "Gloria" ("a song I ripped off from 'You Pretty Thing' by Bo Diddley," Morrison noted). There was also a rich sampling of material from Morrison's various musical phases, including "Back on Top," "Days Like This" and "The Burning Ground," which culminated in the iconic singer adopting a crucifixion pose with a microphone stand.
Morrison's daughter Shana started the music on the main stage at 11 a.m. with a cover of "Sweet Thing," then led her band through a set packed with a diverse blend of jazz, blues and rock.
Boogie king John Lee Hooker arrived an hour later to mesmerize the crowd with a roster of blues classics, including a rendition of "Boom Boom" that had the masses dancing all the way back to the food booths. Looking fragile but by no means weak, Hooker accepted the waves of applause with a suave bow and slight smile.
The two side stages weren't lacking talent, either. Joe Henry and Dave Alvin packed the VH1 tent in separate sets, and Martin Sexton held his own on the smaller Irish Village stage while Costello did his thing on the other end of the sprawling Polo Field.
The day's only dark spot was San Francisco's merciless fog, which draped the Polo Field in a clammy gray blanket that frustrated sun worshipers but still allowed pale Irish skin to get burned. At one point during the afternoon, the PA system began blasting Sly and the Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime," and a rosy-cheeked reveler sighed heavily.
"It's like some sick joke," he said, gazing up at the dour sky.
Too true. But with Guinness and good music flowing, the Fleadh still managed to have the last laugh.