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Monday, 20 June 2011

The London Feis, Finsbury Park

This festival had a split personality. It was called the London Feis when everyone knew it was still the Fleadh. The name had changed because the organiser, Vince Power, sold the rights to the word Fleadh, in what looks now like a slight of hand akin to the apocryphal selling of London Bridge to an American who thought he was getting Tower Bridge.

Then there was the line-up, which was amazing. Bob Dylan, The Waterboys, Christy Moore, Thin Lizzy and Van Morrison all on the same bill. But there was also a lack of consideration for ticket-holders that started with a very long queue to get in (late) on Saturday, continued with an absence of big screens - meaning that I couldn't really tell which one of the two blokes in a hat on stage was Bob Dylan - and ended in a public health disaster that evening. The tiny number of toilets meant that many - including women - gave up the painful attempt to queue and the entire perimeter fence became a giant urinal, something I haven't seen since the 1980s. (When the sun had baked the ground dry the next day some people were sitting propped against the fence, making me want to explain why they probably shouldn't be doing that. But the pervasive smell of vinegar should have been a give-away #pissinginthewind)

The most puzzling thing was that, although I've heard there is a shortage of portable toilets and fencing as a result of there being so many festivals these days, the feis's organisers must have strings they could pull to get the facilities they needed after all these years in the business. This made me think that the outcome was probably a calculated decision to save money: they needed about four times as many toilets as they had on Saturday. It was squalid and made my previous concerns about taking children to festivals seem laughably understated. There was a moment when I saw a female child frolicking in a puddle near a wall where eight men were urinating. Very unpleasant.

And finally - vis a vis split personality - Saturday and the Sunday seemed like two different festivals because birthday boy Bob Dylan's only scheduled UK performance this year drew, I'd estimate, nearly twice as many people on Saturday as there were the following day.

But ah... the music. Saturday's showers meant that the tent drew a grateful crowd and an early assertion of the festival's personality. Irish voices were to be heard all around and when The Fureys sang Sweet Sixteen and The Green Fields of France it seemed that everyone knew the words. The band did indeed play the fife flowly and the pipes played the flowers of the forest *blubs quietly*

Outside, the Waterboys then proceeded to rock. They played a song from the forthcoming album An Appointment with Mr Yeats with the lyric of the Yeats poem September 1913, which we were told "is as well known in Ireland as the Hamlet soliloquy is in the UK". Now there's an idea for a song... However, a more general flavour of the day was provided when a drunk twenty-something girl next to me shouted "Play something we know!" while a stage full of Waterboys played Dylan's You're a Big Girl Now. What came on next was Bang on the Ear, which under the circumstances seemed about right.

Nanci Griffith reminded me how much I like hearing her do From a Distance, right up to the point at which she sang God is watching us, God is watching us, which seemed a little paranoid, even in a tent full of Catholics.

Then Shane MacGowan came on stage and made it clear that this was the gig that he was born to play. Doubtless many were drawn by the same morbid curiosity that had been vocalised a thousand times in the run up to this weekend: "Bob Dylan's playing, he's taken a lot of drugs and just turned 70. This might be my last chance to see him..." But with MacGowan there's an accompanying incredulity that he's been with us for the last ten years at all.

"Ang you erry much," he said to the moshing, crowd-surfing, middle-aged yet copiously tattooed crowd in front of him, many of whom seemed intent on reliving a moment they'd had in Kilburn circa 1986. He's got a laugh like a football rattle, talk-like-a-pirate day could have been invented to acclimatise him to the 21st century and there was a lingering suspicion that when he spoke he was saying something rude about Nanci Griffith. I've never been more grateful for the international language of music because, to be frank, I couldn't understand a word. But a string of Pogues songs - Rainy Night in Soho, London Girl - went down like an ice pack on the ripped a*** of a Soho rentboy and when Dirty Old Town started someone threw their entire plastic pint of lager in the air with joy. Come to think of it, it probably wasn't lager but I'm done writing about that kind of thing for one festival...

Afro Celt Sound System was a revelation, although having heard what Simon Emmerson came up with when he was invited to write some music for a spa I really shouldn't be surprised any more. At one point there was some kind of a fight between a boran, a sikh drum and a bongo, in which I thought the boran came out on top. And one of my favourite sounds in the world, trance bagpipes, also made a guest appearance. "It's great to be at the fleadh!" Emmerson said, putting his finger on it.

Then it was out to the main stage for an encounter with Bob Dylan. My first impression was that the singer in the band sounded like a cross between Bob Dylan and Scooby Doo. Then I got disorientated when I heard a bunch of words that I thought I knew from another Dylan song - blues/shoes/side of the road -  and thought "cuh! The great man's obviously reached the limit of his songwriting genius" before realising that he was actually playing Tangled up in Blue but to an entirely different tune to the one on Blood on the Tracks.

And this was how it went: it was as if he were riffing on the theme of himself. If anyone else had done to those songs what he did to them on Saturday, you'd probably say that they'd massacred them. But, since the emperor had a lovely new outfit to wear and it was his birthday, no one would dream of it. So it must have been my fault that I lost interest. My legs and feet hurt from standing up all day, I couldn't see the stage properly and I'd been upset by, among other things, dark thoughts about contracting trench foot from the rivulets flowing into the tent. I used to care, but things have changed sang Dylan, as if he were his own shadow on the back of the stage. I didn't find it hard to believe: he didn't want to talk to us between songs. I felt properly guilty but I'm afraid I left before the end, feeling uninvolved. If he keeps taking the vitamins I may yet catch him for his 80th.

Right. Sunday was sunnier from the outset, which put a gentler complexion on things. The Hothouse Flowers on the main stage sounded much mellower, jazzier and more like world music than I remember. Then the talent-show-winning Mulkerrin Brothers from Aran, the youngest of whom looked about ten, belted out standards from the third stage and went down a storm.

Little Sean did a dance with a broom, which coupled with the fact that they were the only band to have been scheduled to play three times during the festival, left the door wide open for jokes about the usefulness of youngsters in relation to chimneys. Obviously I'm not going to go there... Let's hope they were being paid properly.

Jimmy Cliff did reggae on the main stage but made a fool of himself, in my opinion, by including Libya, Syria and Jerusalem in his lazy list of places in which he thought it was important to "stop the war". And Teddy Thompson, son of Richard and Linda, did a thoughtful indoor set including a song about looking for a girlfriend who drinks, smokes, takes drugs and enjoys sex. Wikipedia says he lives in New York but I was sure I heard him say Leicester. Either way, it could be time for a move.

Clannad kicked off 20 minutes late, although the string section was on stage at the right time, suggesting that they're on contract. The delay gave an opportunity to reflect that Moya (previously Maire) Brennan's harp looked like a guerilla advert for Guinness, sitting there all golden against the black backdrop: I'd be interested to know whether there was a bump in sales.

They did a medley of songs from their Robin of Sherwood album that didn't do too well in competition with a loud backstage generator but they were a very welcome change of pace and cast a noticeable spell over the mid-afternoon beer buzz. Then - oh joy - Liam O Maonla from the Hothouse Flowers added to the gaiety of the proceedings by turning up to sing the Bono part of In a Lifetime without having learnt the words or the tune and with his flies undone. I know it's kind of wrong to laugh but surely you'd mention it to someone if you knew they were going on stage. Wouldn't you?

Then it was back to the tent to catch the tail-end of Mary Coughlan, who was filling the place with her torch-song sensibility, accompanied by a band who looked frankly delighted to be there. She's got a way with men, she growled, and she's just got away with mine. Then it was Eddi Reader, who could have been the lady from Mary Coughlan's song and whom I'm pretty sure tweeted that she was on her sick bed earlier in the week.

I'm glad she got up, not least for the story about two elderly relatives of hers, Molly and James, to whom she dedicated the song Dragonflies, written by Boo Hewardine on guitar. They wound up in an old folks' home together, only for it to become apparent that Molly had deducted ten years from her age many decades earlier and was therefore 96 when James shuffled off this mortal coil, but with a fantastic collection of shoes. Eddi Reader has a lightness and joy about her that goes with her wonderful voice in such a way that she lifts you up. I could have had an entire evening of that...

Or so I thought, until Van Morrison came on. What a dude, with his gold microphone stand bearing his initials and his collection of unanswerable bluesy hits. As the late afternoon sunshine suffused the crowd with a sense of well-being and a swallow swooped overhead, the two very tall men to my left decided it might be fun to sit on each other's shoulders, which gave them a combined height of around 11 feet and a strong risk of imminent collapse. The temporary distraction of a copy of Private Eye sticking out of the back pocket of the one underneath (best chance of a free copy all week) abated when Moondance started up and Christopher Ecclestone arrived in the crowd nearby during a storm of unrelated applause. He'll always be Dr Woo-Hoo! to me now...

I mainly missed Thin Lizzy because I went to see Camille O'Sullivan do her burlesque/rock mashup and found myself unexpectedly unable to leave. It could have been the thrilling possibility that her clothes might come off completely while she sang The Port of Amsterdam (the little red dress really didn't sit very comfortably on top of what was clearly *important underwear* of a corseted nature), the mugging for the audience, or the kitten and puppy noises that she kept making and encouraging the audience to join in with. A lady behind me said to her partner "I'm finding this a bit annoying" at one stage, but interestingly they didn't leave. Then throughout the second half of the set an enormous green balloon appeared from nowhere, to be batted around between the audience, the stage and its security, almost exactly as if one of the Wicked Witch of the West's breasts had escaped - a la Woody Allan - and was intent on doing a cabaret spot of its own.

By the time Ms O'Sullivan relinquished us there was only time for me to notice that Thin Lizzy had aged quite well and that their audience appeared to be howling like dogs without being prompted from the stage, before the whole thing was over.

I wonder whether Vince Power was actually there?

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  1. "Like an ice pack on the ripped a*** of a Soho rentboy" has to be the most vivid simile I've ever seen employed in a music review. Fabulous stuff, Emma! The whole event sounds like "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" with lots of money spent on the big names, and little on the actual running of the event. Do you reckon the "Feis" (is that pronounced "pish"?) will be back next year?

  2. Thanks darlin' Now, if only I could find a way to make a living out of this :-) Re whether there will be another London feis next year. I'd have to know more about how it happened this year to be able to judge properly. But I suspect that it will be a lot to do with local politics in north London. I do know that I had an email rom the London-based Irish World newspaper this morning, saying that they weren't really interested in how the feis went, which I thought was a bit strange...

  3. Pity you (apparently) missed out on Ham Sandwich on Stage 3, who were in my view the serendipitous discovery of the event, after Ms. O'Sullivan. The tights, the lurex trousers, and sheer raucous fun!
    I can quite understand the lady behind you, by the way - one of our number left Camille's gig after two songs with the self-same sentiments, but we hung on in there and were IMHO lavishly rewarded for our patience. The Don't Think Twice cover was already enough to have us nailed to the spot, and it only got better and better from there on in. Quite a tour de force, is our Camille, and just what multi-stage "where shall we go next, I've never heard of any of these people" stick-a-pin-in-the-programme events can be like at their very best.
    Van's set was immaculately choreographed, but perhaps just too immaculate for a live setting - I've always known Bob works his band hard, but this was more like the slave-driver on a galley, only using just a curt brush of his hand rather than a whip. Bob's gang at least LOOKED like they were having fun... as I was, but then I've seen him a couple of dozen times and knew what to expect and what not to expect.
    Silly or not, Jimmy Cliff was just what the doctor ordered - he worked his socks off and it was good to see him get the Sunday afternoon crowd up and dancing.

    All in all, an excellent two days out.

    And one other comment: we (men) stood for ten minutes in a loooong and slow line for the bog on Saturday afternoon before an Irish SAINT came along and told us what a complete waste of time it was, pointing out the half a dozen four-bowl urinals just to the right of the portapotties with NO queue whatsoever. After that, despite copious drinking, we never stood in line ever again. Nor did we resort to the fence. As nice people, we attempted to pass on the good tidings, but the dumb eedjits standing cross-legged in line seemed to think it was too much of a risk to give up their place, and they ignored us. More fool them.

  4. Good review, enjoyable read, fair comment.
    Yes, of course Vince was there and declared himself satisfied.
    The Fleadh originated with our organisation who went on to co-promote the series with the Mean Fiddler. The fact that we still own 50% of the Fleadh brand means that Live Nation (who bought MFO from Vince) cannot use the title either.
    I felt deja vu when Nanci sang "God is watching us", as at the comparable moment at Cambridge Folk Festival in the 80s a well-spoken voice boomed out "No, He isn't!". Maybe it was a young Richard Dawkins.
    Apologies for the rivulets as we were partially, if indirectly, responsible. We plead innocence regarding the toilets, though!
    John McDonnell (Workers Beer Company)

  5. @baile ur Re. Nanci Griffith Hahahahahaha! I just wonder whether Americans throw in a spot of public god-bothering because it makes them *mainstream* and *normal* over there. It doesn't export very comfortably to the UK though. I wish they'd keep it between god and their conscience. But that's just me...

  6. Unless I was much mistaken, Vince was sitting at stage right (as seen from the audience) wearing a panama hat for the entire duration of Van Morrison's set. With which he seemed well pleased. It was odd, I'll admit, that Saturday and Sunday seemed to be cut from quite different cloths: the place seemed strangely empty and the Guinness line had shrunk from 50 yards to five. Apart from the presence of Saturday's casual Dylan-watchers (who were almost inevitably going to be as disappointed as the blogger), was there any good reason for this? There was nowt wrong with the line-up.


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