Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 17/06/2001.
There were only two more Fleadhs held after this one, in 2002 and 2004: famously, Vince Power cancelled the 2003 festival because he couldn't find a decent Irish act to headline that year. These days, Vince has sold off all his Mean Fiddler interests and is happily running a tiny music venue in Kilburn, Power's Acoustic Room.
Dateline: Finsbury Park, North London, Saturday June 16th 2001
11:30am: It's a river. There's no other way of describing it. It's a flowing expanse of water stretching a good four or five feet across, although it's probably no more than a few inches in depth. Fuelled by a combination of torrential rain and blocked drains, it's running out of the main gates of Finsbury Park, along the pavements and into the Seven Sisters Road. On one side of it stands yours truly, four of Spank's Pals and several dozen other people: on the other side is the rain-sodden park in which we're all planning to have fun for the next twelve hours. Apparently.
Well, you always run this risk when you go to open-air festivals, particularly in this country. And let's be honest, it was a similar story at the first Fleadh festival back in 1990. It was originally the brainchild of Vince Power, manager of the Mean Fiddler chain of music venues: as London has a notoriously large population of Irish and Irish-related inhabitants, why not have an Irish music festival there, similar to the traditional 'fleadh' (pronounced 'flah') you'd get in the old country? He hired the biggest and best acts that he could - Van Morrison, Christy Moore, Hothouse Flowers, The Dubliners and a couple of dozen more - and had them all play in Finsbury Park in North London on a single day.
I was there, as were a few of the Pals. And it was wet. Bloody wet. I still have a photo of Christine wearing a Marks & Spencer carrier bag on her head that could get me into serious trouble if it were accidentally posted on the Internet. But despite all the grumbling, rain and teething problems with the organisation, it was a fine day out. And every year since then, the Fleadh has taken place at Finsbury Park every summer (if you can call this summer, of course...).
The focus has changed in the eleven years since the first event. The bill for the first one was exclusively Irish, and every Irish act that's achieved global stardom can be traced back to an early appearance at the Fleadh: The Corrs, The Divine Comedy, Shane MacGowan & The Popes, The Cranberries, even bleedin' Boyzone. As the years have moved on, the Fleadh's opened up to embrace non-Irish acts that share its rootsy sensibility, including artists as diverse as Dr John, David Gray and the late Kirsty MacColl.
But more recently, the definition of 'honorary Irish' has been stretched alarmingly to embrace people like James, The Pretenders and Sting (all of whom have headlined the festival over the last few years). It could be considered a cause for concern that very few of the acts appearing at the 2001 Fleadh were particularly Irish, and most of those were shunted away to the smallest of the three stages at the back of the park. However, Vince Power seems to be pretty good at judging what sort of music a Fleadh audience will enjoy, and no matter where the performers come from it's very rare that they feel out of place. Although I do wonder about how a festival which used to be sponsored by Guinness nowadays gets its support from an Irish mineral water company and BBC Radio 2: what's that saying about us as an audience?
Back at the water obstacle outside Finsbury Park, we manage to get in via a combination of wading, jumping and (in one extreme case) crossing barefoot. As Jon, Lesley, Grizelda, Christine and your narrator desperately try to dry our feet off again, we console ourselves with the knowledge that at least it can't get any wetter.
12:25pm: We're settled in. We've found a nice space in front of the main stage and laid down a couple of groundsheets. We've said a quick hello to associate Pal Caroline, who's managed to blag her way into the event for nothing by manning a stall for the London Irish Network. We've paid the first of many visits to the Workers Beer Company's fine facilities. And since we've entered the park, the rain's eased up a bit. All we need now is some music.
For reasons that won't become apparent for a few hours, Richard Hawley kicks off the proceedings on the main stage some 25 minutes later than billed. He suffers the usual curse of a festival opening act, in that he ends up being the soundcheck for everyone else that's to follow. But by the third number Sunlight the sound's cleared up quite a bit. Hawley's set is a curious mixture of pretty songs and obscene chat: the man's got a gob on him like the Sheffield steel worker his father was. "I was hopin' the sun would come out so I wouldn't look so much of a coont in these sunglasses," he says at one point. No such luck.
12:45pm: I pop over to one of the smaller tent stages to see Andy White. "This is the place to be", he says: and he's right, mainly because the heavens open some ten minutes into his set, and we can watch the main stage audience drowning from the comfort of a nice marquee. I still have a copy of the man's debut album Rave On Andy White from back in 1985, but haven't really kept up with what he's been doing since then. From his set, it looks like he's given up on the attempt at being a Belfast Bob Dylan (as demonstrated in the rapid-fire wordplay of Religious Persuasion) to concentrate on writing simpler, more direct pop songs. As a subtle nod to today being Bloomsday, Looking For James Joyce's Grave is an early highlight of the day for me.
1:15pm: I return to the drowned rats by the main stage as the rain eases off again, arriving halfway through The Alice Band's set. Not much to be said: three girls in short skirts playing alt-country tunes, and, er, that's it. Even Jon isn't particularly impressed, and he's usually a fan of bands featuring three girls in short skirts. It's noticeable that despite them all playing guitars, it's the three ugly bloke guitarists in the background who take on most of the solos. But their set does have a couple of nice opportunistic touches at the end: a sweet acapella version of After The Goldrush as a tribute to tonight's headliner, and the flirty chutzpah of their new single (I've Got) Nothing On But The Radio.
2:10pm: After another long delay (during which we take the opportunity to wring out our groundsheets, which are retaining water like a pregnant thing), Afro Celt Sound System wander on stage some 40 minutes late. Any annoyance at the delay vapourises as soon as they start playing. The mix of Irish and African music with computerised dance beats works incredibly well in an open-air environment, and this is the first set that really gets the audience up and moving. This despite another ugly change in the weather, which goes from sunshine to heavy rain and back again. The final number, Riding The Waves, appears to actually bring the sun out by sheer force of will.
3:20pm: "We're the youngest band here by about twenty years. Bit of fuckin' youth!" announces the lead singer of the next act, The Gypsy Kings. Actually, that's not true. Though it's never announced, it would appear that the Gyppos aren't going to be appearing as originally announced, and the various delays so far have been to compensate for that. Thus we have Starsailor coming on stage pretty much at the scheduled time, and every other band following them appears to schedule like clockwork.
I'm curious to see Starsailor, as I don't really know much about them except (and I think I've earned the right to say this by now) I believe they're quite popular with the young people nowadays. Amusingly, after the bravado of his opening announcement, lead singer James Walsh appears to be somewhat freaked out by the size of the crowd: but the band has a real melancholic charm, although battling against the worst rain of the entire day doesn't help them. Back in my twenties, when I was fashionably miserable, I would have loved Starsailor: now, I'm curious enough to want to felch the singles Fever and Good Souls off Napster, but not enough to actually buy the album. But maybe I'll give them another chance when I'm dry.
4:30pm: Nick makes a tactically late entrance to avoid the rain: shortly after he arrives, it stops and stays pretty much dry for the rest of the day. Maybe God loves Nick: or maybe God loves Aimee Mann, who's up next. Jon and I ritually push our way to the front of the stage to worship the owner of the best cheekbones in rock music, and are rewarded with a set comprising many of the old favourites from her back catalogue. (Nick's post-set comment - "So, was that all just the one song, then?" - will be treated with the contempt it deserves.) From our location, we're well positioned to witness the two best heckling moments of the day. One punter shouts "I love you, Aimee!", and gets the lyrical equivalent of a kick in the nuts as she acknowledges the compliment and then launches into Deathly, with its opening line "Now that I've met you / would you object to / never seeing each other again?" The second heckle is a little harder for her to deal with, as an audience member demands "Get Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen off the piano!" You had to be there, I suppose.
5:55pm: By now the weather's settled down a bit. Probably the worst aspect of the day has been the sheer changeability of it: twelve hours of continuous pissing rain would probably be preferable to the continuous switches between blazing sunshine and downpour. Every few minutes, people are pulling off jackets, then putting on rainwear, then taking it off again, and so on ad nauseam (all while still trying to keep hold of a pint). It's a good job that the Fleadh has never been considered a particularly fashionable festival, given some of the sartorial crimes on display in an attempt to keep the rain off. The enormous £2 bright yellow rainmacs on sale at the door have been the most popular, closely followed by a similarly sized promotional item from the Natural Highs stand, bearing the slogan "High And Dry".
Meanwhile, back on stage, we're treated to the comedy blues stylings of Gary Moore. He doesn't really mean this, does he? The endless fretwanking, the face pulling, the rock god posturing, the dragging out of every final chord to a minimum of twenty seconds: I refuse to believe that anyone really plays guitar like this outside of ITV comedy sketch shows. Moore does all his guitar and vocal work at screaming pitch, using volume as a substitute for any real emotion. It's entertaining enough, but it ain't the blues: it makes you appreciate the more stripped-down approach of Wilko Johnson, The Hamsters, or any one of the ten thousand or so blues combos playing the pubs of London on any given Saturday night. The three teenage lads standing next to me laughed hysterically all the way through this set: they may have had a point.
7:15pm: It's always an adventure seeing The Waterboys live: apart from Mike Scott, you never know who's going to be in the band until they come on stage. I still have fond memories of their Room To Roam tour in 1990: a month before the first date, Scott sacked his entire band of folk musicians and reinvented the group as a power rock quartet, which came as a bit of a shock to the audiences expecting twiddly Irish tunes. Scott has always wobbled interestingly between folk and rock: this time round the presence of Steve Wickham on fiddle makes the Waterboys closer to the former, although a stunning version of We Will Not Be Lovers uses Wickham's violin riff to piledriving effect. As ever, The Whole Of The Moon brings the house down, and the whole set results in at least a couple of Spank's Pals becoming new Mike Scott fans, either for his music or his, er, other attributes.
8:45pm: You can tell that the headline act's on his way. The space between us and the main stage suddenly has twice as many people in it. Cigarettes Of Unusual Size are being passed around the audience. Someone's holding up a banner that reads "Neil Young kicks BUTT", the effect only slightly diminished by it being written on a single sheet of A4 paper.
Towards the end of that rain-sodden first Fleadh back in 1990, I remember thinking that all it would take to turn this into a fabulously memorable day out would be a small act of white magic. And Van Morrison did just that: anyone who made it through to the end of the day was rewarded with a breathtakingly lovely set from The Man as the sun went down. This year, Neil Young and Crazy Horse perform a similar act of alchemy on the churned-up mud of Finsbury Park. You could argue that Young takes his guitar solos to extremes similar to those displayed by Gary Moore earlier in the day: but there's always genuine feeling in his solos, rather than a simple desire to show off. He does all the ones you'd expect, getting a particularly warm reaction for introducing Piece Of Crap with "this one's for you, George". At 11pm, with all manner of curfews and local bye-laws being breached, he climaxes with 15 minutes of Like A Hurricane, ending in one of his traditional storms of feedback to really piss off the local residents. It's a cliche, but only because it's true: when Neil Young says "hey hey, my my, rock 'n' roll will never die", he means it.
11:15pm: So, to sum up. I'm tired, wet, partially sunburned, covered in mud from the knees down, slightly drunk (so much rainwater was getting into my beer all day that I couldn't even do that properly), my guts are churning from a dodgy burger, and my £5 souvenir programme has got so wet that the pages are stuck together like carelessly-used pornography.
But will I do it again next year? Hell, yes. It's the wettest and most gruelling Fleadh I've ever been to, but the atmosphere and the music all combine to make it worth the effort. I just feel sorry for the soul kids who'll be coming to Finsbury Park the day after this year's Fleadh, to stand in all that mud we've churned up and watch Destiny's Child. Their stillettoes will be twatted after about five minutes. It's a good job that I'm made of stronger stuff. Being a monkey, and all.
The Fleadh official site [dead link] probably isn't much use to you now that the gig's over. Still, they may use the same URL for the site for future Fleadhs. And you can always check out the rest of the Mean Fiddler site to see what's happening with their other venues and festivals.
The Workers Beer Company has been an integral part of the Fleadh since the first one: giving its employees a share in a co-operative enterprise, and its customers the opportunity to get pissed ethically.
Richard Hawley's official site in five words: Skimpy. Grey. Biography. Construction. Relish?
Andy White's official site in five words: Official? Dunno. Graphics. Cute. Koalas.
The Alice Band's official site [dead link] in five words: Leaves. Moving. Creepy. Little. Else.
Cousteau's official site in five words: Sorry. I. Missed. Them. Cheryl.
Afro Celt Sound System's official site in five words: Funky. Informative. Exclusive. Downloads. Noodle!
The Gypsy Kings' official site in five words: Last. Update. Circa. 1998. Oops.
Starsailor's official site in five words: Shockwave. Tricksy. Slow. 640x480? Nope.
Aimee Mann's official site in five words: Dodos. Downloads. Pictures. Cheekbones. Hmmm.
Gary Moore's unofficial site in five words: Last. Update. February. 2000. Pah!
The Waterboys' official site in five words: Huge. Screen. Buggered. Browser. Bastards.
Neil Young's official site in five words: Autoerotic. Sneaky. Links. Hidden. Everywhere.
[sites may no longer match the above descriptions]
London Irish Network is an organisation for London-based Irish people (or anyone else, really) who want to meet up for social, cultural and sporting activities. Maybe if I give them a nice plug, Caroline can get me free into next year's Fleadh...
BBC Radio 2? That's for dead people, isn't it? Well, not really, not any more. They were the official radio station [dead link] of the Fleadh this year, you know. The R2 web site has an audio interview [dead link] with Fleadh boss Vince Power. While you're there, check out the page for the Jonathan Ross show (probably the best thing on the wireless right now), including a comprehensive audio archive [dead link]. (All audio on the Beeb sites requires Real Player.)