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Guinness Fleadh : Celebrating the Celtic

By Earle Hitchner
The Wall Street Journal
Page A21
(Copyright (c) 1999, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)


Randalls Island, N.Y. -- The roar didn't come from Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" economy this past Saturday evening. It came from the throng greeting one of Ireland's most popular exports, the Saw Doctors, as the group took the main stage at the third annual Guinness Fleadh . This high-energy band from Tuam, County Galway, bashed out Irish ballads with enough barroom swagger and raucous elan to keep the sunburned crowd swaying and singing with them.

More than 27,000 people poured onto a parched grass field on this 194-acre island in New York City's East River to take in the last stop of a four-city tour that celebrated refreshingly diverse music, Irish and otherwise. There were four stages operating simultaneously, plus a slew of pavilions and vending stands stocked with rock 'n' roll memorabilia, "digital jam" keyboards, Fender guitars, Irish knitwear and crystal, fast food, cold beer (of course) and a miniature golf course dubbed "Fairway to Heaven."

Fortunately, the flea-market swirl never distracted from the music, which was generally sharp and sometimes as searing as the weather. Louisiana-born Lucinda Williams performed lacerating loved-and-lost songs that ranged from the rockabilly sting of "Can't Let Go" and the country rock of "Metal Firecracker" to the brooding melancholy of "Drunken Angel" and "Greenville." On the last two songs, Elvis Costello joined her band, which included drummer Fran Breen, a former member of the Irish rock-traditional group Stocktons Wing.

Williams wasn't the only non-Irish artist with an Irish percussionist. Flaxen-haired singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins, whose hit single "Lullaby" earned him a Grammy nomination for best male pop vocal performance, introduced his drummer, Kevin Leahy, as "a nice Irish Catholic boy from the Bronx," eliciting a cheer from the partisan New York crowd. Though Mullins's songs at times verge on self-consciousness and faux insight, he showed an acute folk sensibility on "Clarice," a woman entreated by her lover to "quit the Klan." As a subtly emotive interpreter of other writers' songs, he deftly distanced Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" from the countless covers heard in the past.

With Irish traditional music, often dating back centuries, covers are standard fare. No band today is more assured and accomplished in interpreting Ireland's native tradition than Altan, a brilliant Dublin-based sextet specializing in the music of Donegal and other Ulster counties. Tenderly effective were lead singer Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh's renditions of "I Wish My Love Was a Red, Red Rose," penned by 18th-century Scots bard Robert Burns, and "Gleanntain Ghlas Ghaoth Dobhair" ("Green Glens of Gweedore"), a Gaelic song composed by her father. The band also struck an ideal balance between fire and finesse in their playing of three Irish reels that included the improbably titled "Guns of the Magnificent Seven."

Tacking in a different direction from Altan were Kila and the Eileen Ivers Band, featuring the superb New York uilleann pipes player Jerry O'Sullivan. Like Altan, both ensembles were firmly anchored in the Irish tradition, but they often veered off into the exotica of African percussion and decidedly non-Irish dance rhythms. This made for intriguing, if not always cohesive, stage performances. The Caribbean-spiced tune "Islanders" was bolstered by some strong fiddling from Ivers and the innovative dance steps of her one-time "Riverdance" colleague, Tarik Winston. Kila performed some energetic dance tunes of their own, but their slower, moodier melodies too often drifted into a spacey, trancelike vacuum.

The ultimate black hole, however, was created by Hootie & the Blowfish, a middling rock band from Columbia, S.C., whose 1994 album, "Cracked Rear View," sold over 17 million copies. Pumping up the volume, they performed FM-saturated, sing-along hits -- "Let Her Cry," "Only Wanna Be With You," "Hold My Hand" -- and other characterless songs, all quickly lost in a din of flailing electric guitars. This hollow Hootie sound was a classic case of commerce trumping quality.

Happily, the reverse was true for Elvis Costello, John Prine and Richard Thompson, three gifted singer-songwriters whose performances proved that rock and country music can be both cerebral and visceral. Armed with just guitars and the pianist from his Attractions band, Steve Nieve, Costello still had the vocal edge of his impish pop-punk persona of the late 1970s. "Mystery Dance" and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" sounded as cheekily fresh as they did on his 1977 debut album, "My Aim Is True." From the Grammy-winning recording he made last year with Burt Bacharach, "Painted From Memory," Costello gave an impassioned, head-thrown-back rendition of their song "I Still Have That Other Girl."

Neck cancer kept former mailman John Prine from performing for over a year, but now free of that medical struggle, the Nashville singer once more conveyed the homespun news of such classic songs as "Grandpa Was a Carpenter" and "Angel From Montgomery" with breathtaking proficiency. More recent songs he's written -- "Picture Show," "All the Best," "Lake Marie" -- were also flawlessly delivered.

Before taking the stage, Richard Thompson confessed with a smile, "I'm only one-sixteenth Celt. Think anyone will mind?" No one did. Fronting a band that featured his son Teddy on electric guitar and ex-Pentangle member Danny Thompson (no relation) on bass, Thompson stayed mostly with electric guitar as he tore into songs about London, his hometown, from his next album. It was a thrilling, frill-free set capped by "Two-Faced Love," a rueful examination of ardor that "feels so wrong it must be right."

As Thompson intimated, you didn't have to be Irish to enjoy the Fleadh , although there was plenty of fine Irish talent to choose from, including pop singers Frances Black and Eleanor McEvoy, beloved balladeers Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy, and Brooklyn's 14-year-old fiddle phenom Patrick Mangan. On this day, music was thicker than blood.


Copyright © 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.