Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Irony Need Not Apply

About half the 59 featured acts at this year's Guinness Fleadh were Irish by nationality or cultural heritage, including five consecutive stadium designees the Saturday night of the muddy weekend. But beyond Sineád and what I could take of the alarmingly puffy Shane MacGowan--Fat Death-Warmed-Over, that still somehow strident voice emanating from a toothless zombie with a drink in one hand and a cig in the other--I caught a total of eight songs by four Irish bands in two eight-hour days. Indeed, the hard-reeling Solas and the twisty-reeling Eileen Ivers seemed worth a longer listen. But there was just too much else. Little of it was new, yet all of it, almost, was renewed, as for instance X and Patti Smith, who were why I short-changed Solas and Ivers. With the supple songfulness and backward-looking conceptions of Lucinda Williams, Bonnie Raitt, and Billy Bragg & Wilco more exciting in 1998 than the innovations of whole subcultures of avant-claiming hopefuls, residual forms aren't just an honorable dead end anymore. Every committed pop fan needs to come to terms with them.

Not that the Fleadh felt so epochal on an hour-to-hour basis. It was more like a day at the beach--a day at the beach when it happened to be raining. Yet if anything, the dank weather--which many artists were inspired to note was exceedingly Irish--improved the vibe, by reducing crowds (all Saturday ticket-holders were invited back free for Sunday) and alcohol consumption (though the cops did march in to break up some roughneck beachball rugby). And the music was consistently strong--so strong that I have to credit the vibe and the historical moment as well as the wide-ranging savvy of the chief promoter, former SummerStage mastermind Joe Killian.

I had a great time the sunshiny day I went last year, but I saw only one truly memorable performance, by John Prine. This year I caught at least four--Los Lobos churning out the hottest set I'd ever heard from them and Chumbawamba riding its moment with nun costumes and antifascist propaganda, Jeb Loy Nichols arriving late and X pretending they'd never been away--with twice as many almost as good bubbling under. Nobody was transcendent--the stop-and-shop hedonism of the multistage format discourages the requisite spiritual focus, as does arena scale. But even the unsurprising Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III had honed their solo shticks into shpears. And the festival's very peak came Sunday afternoon, when Bragg and his Yank allies expiated their respective banalities by contacting Woody Guthrie via the spirit medium of his daughter Nora. All of them joined in--Woody included, I swear--on "Walt Whitman's Niece," which more than any other moment of the weekend honored the past as it redefined it, solemn and silly, spontaneous and self-conscious all at once.

In short, with the lucky exception of Lollapalooza '95 in Hartford and the traditional one of the Monterey Pop Festival, this year's Fleadh comprised the most enjoyable days of live music I've ever witnessed. So what if half the paying customers were buying a corporate-sponsored conflation of Irish chauvinism and Celtic mysticism? If Erin was what it took, then thanks be to Erin. Both the chauvinism and the mysticism were absorbed, for music lovers savvy enough to read a schedule, in a traditionalism that transfigured both fallacies.

From the unclassifiable Nichols, whose left-sensual vision of domesticity requires a reggae bassist, and the unspeakable Nanci Griffith, smiling reassuringly at the end of every line just in case we thought she thought she was better than us, to Joe Ely and Rosanne Cash, whose end-sets I wish I'd seen whole, the Nashville fringe was amply represented. There were rock bands conceptualized around an imagined subcultural past: Los Lobos, their Chicanoness aptly incorporating r&b and guitar-rock and ecumenically embracing the salsa they launched their show with; or Wilco, as inclusive as the Rolling Stones but too unassuming to get their rocks off on it. (As you'd figure, the Irish love this overall tack: reel-rocking Popes, yeomanlike Saw Doctors, punk-plunking Blink, Europop Corrs.) There were also rock bands like X and Yo La Tengo, each of whom demonstrated--Yo La with an on-point cover of the Stiff Little Fingers troubles rant "Suspect Device"--punk's inxorable evolution into a blueslike emotional staple. And of course, there were folkies of every description: to name only those I glimpsed, Wainwright, Thompson, Bragg, John Fahey, Tommy Makem, Tracy Chapman, John Martyn, Richard Davies, and Chris Smither, whose grand voice, stomping foot, blues-drenched guitar, and abiding interest in the problem of evil packed more power than the humdrum bands of Chapman and Martyn combined.

One reason Smither's blues sounded so good is that they were so rare. With John Lee Hooker declining to fly in (he was scheduled for Chicago and San Francisco), only Los Lobos, who went out on a crowd-rousing boogie, and Fahey, who long ago drifted beyond his area of scholarly specialization, did more than brush past that tradition. Although world music charts document the deprioritizing effect Celtic hegemony has on African-derived rhythmic ideas, this wasn't necessary--Corey Harris or Guy Davis (or both) would fit right in at the Fleadh, as would Little Charlie & the Nightcats or the Allman Brothers, and it was r&b-based Los Lobos, skanking Nichols, and roots-punk X who rooled my personal f-u-n list. Nevertheless, the festival was there to celebrate less groove-dependent avenues of vernacular pleasure. Promoter Killian's insistence on songs obviously bows to Erin's intrinsic blarney quotient (one reason MacGowan is such a waste live is that he doesn't have it in him to enunciate his scabrous lyrics), and his stated policy of targeting artists who can connect with an audience isn't the shibboleth it might seem. Because above all, what the Fleadh makes the most of is sincerity.

With very few exceptions, there was no irony to be had at the Fleadh. Granted, the exceptions are important. As with the African retentions, these encompassed several standouts, notably Wainwright and Yo La Tengo, as well as normal complements of the everyday indirection that imbues so much pleasant chatter, especially when it's humorous--e.g., Tommy Makem thanking "the best Saturday-afternoon audience we've had today." Moreover, sincerity needn't be fatuous. Without naming names (the Fleadh's secret rival, Lilith Fair) or putting slip-ups on the record (how about Makem's "Waltzing With Bears," or the headlining Corrs and Indigo Girls?), Killian was rightly proud to claim that his festival steered clear of "the saccharine."

Nevertheless, the vibe and the historical moment rewarded performers who said what they meant. One odd consequence was natural-seeming moments of political derring-do. Bragg's prounion speech wasn't just accepted but cheered, as was Chumbawamba's outspokenly antiracist Nazi song. The only rad blamed for it was Patti Smith, who with a heedlessness that brought back old times insulted not just the Irish (which she actually might have gotten away with) but alcoholic beverages (after which her choicest joke--"What do you call an Irishman who sits in the sun all day?" "Paddy O'Furniture"--met stony silence). But beyond this not altogether accidental side effect (after all, the Irish have been combatting oppression nonstop for centuries), what was at work here was a widespread dissatisfaction with postmodern reflexiveness.

That might seem like a tall order for a bunch of drunks taking comfort in the musical familiar. And as someone who'll be reflexive till the day he dies, I'm not claiming there's any way for citizens of the information age to escape the multireferentiality of their culture. But the issue isn't whether it affects us--it's whether it defines us. It's whether under the circumstances the only way to make honest art is by not saying what you mean--by play-acting, undercutting, inoculating yourself against your own existential confusion by containing it in significant (but not that significant) form. That was the choice the Fleadh set up, and among the artists and the savvy music lovers it was consciously struggled over right down to the apparent exceptions: Yo La's "Autumn Sweater," a homely metaphor for connubial devotion, and Wainwright's "Homeless," a bleakly literal meditation on the death of his mother, are as poetic and emotional as anything Nanci Griffith will sing in her life.

I hope no one will mind if I point out that, these days, sincerity isn't kid stuff--self-referentiality is. Playing to a late-twenties-centered audience that included many families, the Fleadh acts were never aggressively youthful even when they were chronologically young. They were just, I'm sorry, human. Whether residual forms were stiffening Sineád's resolve and Patti's chutzpah, inspiring Nichols or sustaining Smither or energizing X, or merely providing a conduit for the saccharine and received, they were the currency of a healthy and inevitable reaction. As you get older, if you get older, you come to realize that emotions are no less real for being corny. In fact, maybe they're realer.

Village Voice, June 30, 1998