I'll preface this snark-filled rant by clarifying that I did not see Dave Swarbrick in 1970--when I was 9 and listening to my parents' battered copy of Louis Prima and Keely Smith: Box of Oldies.
October/November 1997, # 72
Randall's Island, New York, NY
June 14-15, 1997
For the first U.S. Guinness Fleadh the weather was perfect, and the atmosphere was consistent: The trees were green, the politics were greener, and the motivation was greenest of all.
There were two ways to enjoy the Fleadh. One was to gather as much data as possible ahead of time -- especially schedules and site maps. The best ways to do this were to be or know a VIP -- performer, press, or Guinness employee. The second way was to not give a damn, fill your pockets with cash, make your way to Randall's Island ($3 bus fare or toll, $35 to $40 for a ticket), and wander around drinking until you fall over.
Most of the attendees, or at least the most visible ones, chose the second approach. "Fleadh" was more than the name of the festival, it was a sound many tried to pronounce, albeit involuntarily. An Irish festival is no place to wear sandals.
The remaining attendees were able to have fun, if they steered clear of cookie-tossers and weren't prone to righteous indignation.
There was no advance information about concert schedules. New York papers didn't print a schedule (though at least one Connecticut paper did), and even the Internet gave little insight. Requests for information at the site were met with, "Buy the program" ($10, four colors, mostly ads, slightly out-of-date schedules).
The beer tent sold Guinness and Harp on tap ($5 a pint), and as far as I could tell, no free water was available. Small bottles of spring water, for $3 each, tasted suspiciously like chlorine. (And "New York Code" required that the vendors keep the screw-off caps.)
The "replica of an authentic Irish village" featured magnetic piercing jewelry, plastic car-window unicorns, and Sam Ash's electric guitar raffle.
Attendees who were there for the music and had done their homework were rewarded. At the end of day one, while Shane MacGowan and Van Morrison at competing stages siphoned off the serious drunks, the rest were intoxicated by Cape Breton's Ashley MacIsaac. MacIsaac and his band tore through funked-up tunes, mostly from Hi How Are You Today? But the stunner was a solo medley of traditional tunes that left his audience exhausted. For over 20 minutes, MacIsaac scissored his slight frame and sawed at the fiddle like a candidate for exorcism. Smoke rose from his bent back -- steam from his sweat? burning rosin? His precision, in the midst of this fury, was awesome; not since Dave Swarbrick, circa 1970, have I seen such an exhilarating skirl.
For more traditional fare, uilleann piper Davy Spillane and singer Christy Moore, in separate sets, evoked Emerald Isle nostalgia, even in those of us who've never been there. Sinead Lohan, young and dreadlocked, showed off her soft, sweet alto in a pop-folk setting. The Sinead with less-interesting hair, O'Connor, was a striking disappointment, though it wasn't her fault; the sound for her stadium set was muddy beyond comprehension. (Rumors of sabotage stalked the audience.)
Natalie Merchant, Moxy Früvous, Suzanne Vega, and Richard Thompson did sets with minimal new material or Celtic content. All were charming and lively (Früvous more manic than merely lively). Either Vega chose the weakest of her early songs, or they haven't worn well for me since college, but she's forgiven because she opened with "Marlene on the Wall," possibly her best song. Thompson's audience included old fans (whom he obliged with a request or two) and new converts, who raved about his wit and acoustic guitar playing.
Still, I've had better settings for music at clubs and better crafts and Celtic content at local festivals. And the crassness was unsettling. Had the festival promised "Cead Mile Failte" ("ten thousand welcomes") each welcome would probably have cost a buck.
-- Pamela Murray Winters (Arlington, VA)