It's a long time since I expected much from rock "festival" vibes, between the occasional stampede and routine challenges to the bodily functions. With two sixth-grade girls in tow and the prospect of 10 hours sharing Randall's Island with 20,000 strangers and what the Fleadh sponsors called "thousands of perfect pints of Guinness," I could only hope I wasn't leading these innocents straight into a St. Patrick's Parade from hell.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore's Texan drone wafted over the walls of Downing Stadium as we picked our way past the Irish Breakfast concessions, the arepa cart, and the groups of young who sat in the dirt recovering from the long Guinness lines. Some 80 acts would perform during the two-day "Irish Festival" on four temporary stages. "I've learned that everything is Contemporary Folk," Gilmore told us as he introduced "a prairie song that turns into a Celtic war chant." This was not a bad orientation for fare that, ranging from Van Morrison to technopunks Blink to the Neville Brothers, aimed for a certain catholicity of taste.
Irish catholic. Because the Irish in America have always treasured their own musical traditions more than any other white immigrant group, youths in the stadium pit sang along to Christy Moore's agit-folk and middle-aged cops listened attentively to Sinéad O'Connor. And revered '60s preservationist Tommy Makem, who I saw next in the, well, Village Voice tent, had people eating Pete Seeger out of their hands. Infants--one in an all-green carriage--were in evidence here, as well as one red-faced octogenarian.
About now I turned to drink, and the whole day turned too. At the courtesy tent, frothy stout was laid out to settle like egg creams. Cool, dark, leaving a buzz like a gnawing regret, the regret of Joyce's Greta for Michael Furey, the regret some women feel for the boys they never kissed at 18. Not me. When I was young, I kissed everyone I could, to be safe. Instead, I'll look back and regret I didn't drink more Guinness this day.
While my young companions frolicked with my husband in the children's area, I watched Nashvillish Frances Black and then, very briefly, East Villager Pierce Turner, who wasn't as interesting as the potatoes that spiraled out from what appeared to to be a bathing-suit wringer, or the machine that turned a large white onion into a "Blooming Onion" that sold for six dollars. Next, to the Irish Village to hear someone named Tom Kelly read these words: "He put a nine-inch hunting knife through his throat from his chin up to his brain, then shoved him in the trunk and said, `You should have seen your fuckin' face, har har.'"
As I watched some uninspired dancing in which female modernity succumbed to male clog, my boozy regret turned into a great wave of sentimentality that knocked me over until I was weeping in memory of my recently deceased dad. The kids began to regret they hadn't studied the Celtic souvenirs. I regretted letting them and herded them back to Soul Asylum, which we all regretted. Irish good-timers the Saw Doctors were fun for a while, Christy Moore impressive. But the acts I had a personal stake in were John Prine--who was in a state of grace I'd hoped, gentle, rough, and soulful, the crowd cheering each time he sang "I have some gold inside me too"--and Sinéad O'Connor.
The light was falling as O'Connor's set approached, and drinking had achieved such critical mass that red eyeballs stood out in the crowd as if someone had circulated with a marker. A flushed young woman heaved herself onto a railing and, grinning broadly, gestured enthusiastically, if enigmatically, back and forth between the cut she held and her own breast. the mood was mostly friendly, but I was certainly prepared for ugliness as Sinéad took the stage for her first New York performance since she tore the pope's face.
While I have my doubts about her new "soothing" sound, O'Connor prevailed onstage, her amphitheater-friendly loftiness completed by the seven women she brought with her. The young-looking choir sang ethereal harmonies with the intensity of spirits warding off evil, and it seemed to work. The only attack I witnessed came from my girls, who called for "her old stuff" and designed spears to threaten her. They much preferred the rather incoherent Shane MacGowan, throwing off their shoes and dancing to his rowdy band before passing out on the grass. For MacGowan we missed most of Van Morrison, chubby in white suit and fedora with a big band when we wandered back.
Quite a lot of kissing was going on now. Really long kisses. One kiss against a tree as I walked to the portajohns had moved to the dirt as we walked back. Others lay stiff on their backs. It was really remarkable, given the amount of drinking, how good-natured an event it had been. It was a wonderful audience, alert and informed, yet out for a good time. We went home and bought stout and played Sinéad, but it wasn't the same at all.
Village Voice, June 24, 1997