Pop: Nice craic

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The Independent Culture
TEN YEARS ago, when the first Fleadh was staged at Finsbury Park, it was a rowdy and boisterous affair. Rain fell heavily and there was a mood of grim determination abroad as ex- patriot Irish revellers laid claim to a park in north London which, for a day at least, came to symbolise the brown, wet fields of home.

It wasn't just the glorious sunshine which made this 10th anniversary an altogether more easy-going and convivial affair. The festival has changed over the years, becoming less concerned with the idea of national identity, and more focused on being a day of expansive family fun.

Three stages provided the something-for-everyone entertainment, and there was a sizeable kid's play area, as well as stalls selling everything from wholefood to Mexican hammocks and herbal highs. Those too tired to stand could lie back and watch the bungee jumpers and wonder why they would pay pounds 44 for the privilege.

It was just like any festival - long queues for the Portaloos and beer tent included. But while the manageable size of the site and friendly atmosphere makes The Fleadh a little special, it also means that most of the music becomes incidental. The artistic stakes (and, indeed, the volume) are never high enough to produce a real stand-out performance.

Signalling the pan-global nature of late-Nineties craic, The Afro-Celt Sound System's blend of percussive tribalism, Irish piping, sean-ns singing and dance beats gave a perfect backdrop to the blazing mid-afternoon. But as the sound wavered between uplifting clarity and a muffled thud, it was a reminder that Finsbury Park is hardly a natural auditorium.

It was in the sparsely attended smaller stages/tents that some of the day's highlights took place, such as Belfast acoustic blues guitar virtuoso Colin Reid, highly promising Dublin singer/songwriter Paddy Casey and The Handsome Family - a dark, funny country death-song duo from Chicago.

On the main stage, Elvis Costello was introduced as a living legend but it was hard to tell if his career-spanning set lived up to the hype. Following on from the daft but enjoyable The Saw Doctors, Costello's acoustic performance sounded like it was being phoned in from out on the Irish Sea. Shame.

The same fate befell a short 10-minute set by Ronan Keating, who was test-driving his new single, but the mood lifted with Van Morrison balancing a brace of crowd-pleasing oldies with improvised recent material.

Then, as night fell, the volume at last turned up and The Pretenders, fronted by a lean, mean, and very much on form Chrissie Hynde stole the day. Tough pop rock, great songs and the voice of an angel. For a finale, Elvis Costello joined her for a full throttle "(What's So Funny About) Peace Love And Understanding", ensuring that everybody would go home happy.