THE POWER AND THE PASSION OF THE FLEADH
It seemed improbable that Shane MacGowan and the Popes would have been preceded on the stage at London's Finsbury Park by the rather splendid Irish Folk-Ballet Company. But then this was early afternoon - a time of day, you sense, with which MacGowan is only distantly familiar. MacGowan no longer commands the top billing he enjoyed in Fleadh's past with the Pogues, and so there he was, trapped in bright sunshine like a rabbit in a car's headlights. For a man whose artistry is synonymous with a nocturnal existence, it seemed incongruous to see him appearing at 2.25pm.
Playing for only the fifth time with the Popes, hopes were riding high for the new-look MacGowan, particularly as had delivered an exhilarating St Patrick's Night performance at London's Grand a few months ago. But MacGowan is nothing if not a veteran at letting you down, and here he was at it again.
In the annals of MacGowan's underachievements this won't go down as his worst but where once it was sad to stalk his faltering voice and stumbling frame it's now just tedious. His once-rich voice gave way to that anaemic stand-in - frayed-sounding, parched, vocals. And his slurred delivery gave little away in terms of comprehensibility. Towards the front of the stage, younger members of the audience (too young to have caught him at his prime) greeted MacGowan's out-of-his-headness with naive hilarity; "He can hardly stand," one screeched as he lurched on stage, "Look at the head on him," chorused another. They'd heard all about MacGowan, now they came to see for themselves. MacGowan as celebrity freak show?
Not that it was all bad. The Popes are no mugs and without fiddles and accordions, they steam through a vigorous, punky, folkabilly set. And then there's MacGowan's masterpiece, "Fairytale Of New York," where he was joined by Kirsty McColl. In the midst of this inordinately emotional song you can forgive MacGowan almost everything. Hundreds of songs have articulated the Irish immigrant experience but none have conjured such a smorgasbord of emotions.
As MacGowan departed, someone, glimpsing these scribbles, leaned over my shoulder and said, "He's still a star you know." He absolutely was, and might be again, but on Saturday's performance he offered just a tiny spec of light. As he left the stage, he shouted: "Tiochaid Ar La" (Our day will come). Perhaps, but it's impossible not to think that his day has come - and gone. Hopefully not.
MacGowan was followed on the main stage by the underwhelming D:Ream but the Sawdoctors were better - their high-speed, bar-room folk is perfectly suited to the Fleadh.
The Cranberries and Christy Moore turned in assured performances, though the former were hampered by having to make do with an acoustic set because of lead singer Dolores O'Riordan's recent broken leg. Three years ago, O'Riordan appeared on one of the smaller stages at the Fleadh as a self-conscious teenager. Here, the transformation into an unerringly confident performer was remarkable. It helps that she has a divine voice, ideally suited to the Berries' plangent sound. With a new album due later this year, you wouldn't bet against the Cranberries topping the bill at next year's Fleadh.
That honour went to New Zealand's Crowded House, recent winners of the Brits' Best International Band and all-round Big Thing. Recently described as "the acceptable face of AOR," they clearly please a huge constituency with their blend of folk-jazz-rock but it wasn't until their finale, with an enormous Maori choir and the songs "Catherine's Wheel" and "Together Alone," that this writer felt they were anything but magnificently alright.
Meanwhile, the real finale was been served by The Dubliners in
the Mean Fiddler marquee. There, the oldest swingers in town were joined
on stage for the last two numbers by one Shane McGowan. To this apparition,
the crowd gave a tumultuous reception. Eight hours after appearing on the
main stage, MacGowan was in a suitably deteriorated state and his vocals
were, if anything, even less audible. But they didn't care - he's still
a star you know.
Your intrepid maintainer is DzM.