Rock: He's an uptown, up-tempo Elton

THERE'S NO getting away from it. There comes a time in every man's life when he has to face the fact that he is sitting in an open-air stadium on a cold and breezy London evening, with a pounds 1.50 cigarette packet of warm chips in one hand, a pounds 2.30 plastic bottle of warm beer in the other, and a pounds 50 ticket in his pocket that entitles him to see some middle-aged men in Eighties suits playing Seventies music, while the person he'd rather be watching is home in bed with a sore throat. Last Sunday, that time came for me.

Billy Joel was unwell. He was due to finish off a double-header tour with Elton John at Wembley Stadium, but had to cry off with a throat infection - perhaps he'd caught the same virus that laid Geri Halliwell low just before she left the Spice Girls. Strangely, the promoters forgot to hang a banner outside the stadium to offer fans a refund, so some ill-informed punters, eg, me, didn't realise that the bill had been halved until we read the news on the scoreboard. There was some compensation: Elton played "Uptown Girl". The whole crowd leapt to its feet, so it's fair to assume that a significant proportion of them had come to see Joel. Personally, I think they should have leapt to their feet and left the building. If it had been Elton who had been indisposed, would he have expected his fans to be mollified by a chorus of "Candle in the Wind" from Joel?

To be fair, Elton did his best to give value for money. He delivered the awesome, finger-knotting piano-playing that you hardly ever hear on his records these days, and he didn't stint on old favourites, drawing particularly heavily on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. If only he'd incorporated some of the showmanship of that era, too. The routine way he ran through his songs on Sunday made you nostalgic for the days when he doubled his height with platform boots and staggered on stage so out of it that he barely knew which country he was in. Instead, all that was offered for our visual amusement was the band's matching blue-and-purple suits (they must have gazed enviously at the England squad's beige). Not to mention their matching mullets, presumably a compulsory measure designed to make Elton's artificial hair look more stylish.

As a day out in the sunshine, The Fleadh - silent "e", silent "d" - is less frantic and oppressive than any of the festivals that are coming up, but it will never compete with Glastonbury for musical content. Intended as a celebration of Irish rock (and Guinness), it's too small an event to attract U2, and too big to make do with any other Irish band. The headliners at Finsbury Park on Saturday were James. They wouldn't make it into the Irish football team, but they qualify for Fleadh duty because they have a fiddle player, and on their less tuneful songs they sound like a poor man's U2 (even then, they're preferable to Simple Minds, the poor man's U2 who were originally scheduled). On their more tuneful songs, "Sit Down", "Star", "Destiny Calling", they are as anthemic and inspirational as ever, but even these hits weren't big enough to stop the exodus when the rain started to fall.

Shane MacGowan was a contender as a festival headliner a few years ago. He's no longer in that league, but in an early-evening slot he can still get the green, white and orange flags waving. The mind of Father Jack in the body of Wayne Slob, he dribbles his way through a set that leaves you wondering whether he is the provenance of the expression "the luck of the Irish". As an alcoholic, he's lucky to make his living in the artificial- stimulant-friendly sphere of music; as an alcoholic musician, he's lucky to be working in the artificial-stimulant-friendly sphere of Irish folk- rock knees-ups; and as an alcoholic Irish folk-rock musician, he's lucky to have as focused and fiery a band as the Popes to prop him up.

Fleadh highlights came from the not-at-all Irish Dr John (see Records, page 10), and the not-much-more Irish Billy Bragg. The latter's set was historic, and not just because it consisted entirely of songs the crowd had never heard before, and mini-lectures to explain the context in which these songs were written - hardly the best tactic for whipping up a festival crowd. No, this was a momentous 40 minutes because these were no ordinary Bragg songs: he'd got in Woody Guthrie to write the words for him.

To be more accurate, Guthrie's daughter, Nora, unearthed sheaves of the legendary folk singer's lyrics, for which no music was ever written down or recorded, and gave Bragg the job of completing them. It was a controversial choice. Bob Dylan and Guthrie's son, Arlo, were more obvious candidates, but once you've heard Bragg singing these epistles from the 1940s and 1950s, you won't be able to imagine the lyrics any other way. They're wonderful, and fit the music so snugly that if Bragg were not the essence of decent blokehood, you'd suspect the project to be a hoax. It never sounds as if he has imposed his identity on the words. It sounds, rather, like he has stared so hard at the manuscripts that he has discerned Guthrie's musical notation engrained in invisible ink. He doesn't sing the songs in an Essex accent, either. Anyone who wasn't at the Fleadh can hear them on Mermaid Avenue (EastWest), released next week.

Boy George is 37 today, which makes his sobriquet more inappropriate than ever - and it was never very appropriate. But his one-off show at the Albert Hall on Tuesday proved that age has not withered him nor dimmed his star quality. All the same, the evening was a puzzling jumble of obscure songs, new songs, cover versions and even two songs sung by a backing vocalist, while George was offstage "changing into something even more ridiculous". Redemption came in the form of Jon Moss and Mikey Craig, drummer and bassist of Culture Club, who joined George to play "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" A treat for the fans, but - as the Culture Club reunion tour comes to Britain in December - somewhat superfluous.

George's opening act was an ungainly, out-of-tune Dannii Minogue, who didn't even have the courtesy to dress up in anything glam or kitsch. It would be unkind to say anything else about her performance except that she is a very reasonable children's-TV presenter.

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