Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Feis Festival 2011: Dylan and Van Morrison Rock Out Finsbury Park

With music royalty Bob Dylan and Van Morrison topping the bill at the London Feis, it was naturally with great excitement that I offered to take one for the team and go along as a representative of UK Festival Guides.

Saturday 18 and Sunday 19th June saw the return to Finsbury Park of the Fleadh Festival after a seven year break and with a new name: the Feis.

Checking the weather forecast on Saturday revealed that us Feis-goers could expect ‘light rain showers.’ Oh BBC Weather, how optimistic you were. Waterproofs packed (just say No to umbrellas at festivals), my partner in crime and I trudged through the horizontal rain towards a mobbed and extremely muddy Finsbury Park.

First port of call was obviously the bar. Cider being the ONLY festival beverage, two pints were duly purchased for the princely sum of £8.40. At that price it should have been served to us by a leprechaun. At the end of a rainbow. With a free bag of gold.

Off we popped to the main stage to see everybody’s favourite Springsteen tribute band, The Gaslight Anthem. The New Jersey four-piece rockers warmed the crowd up with anecdotal sing-a-longs like Great Expectations, The ’59 Sound and Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. Some tunes from their newer record, American Slang, were less known by the audience, but just as good on the ear. A couple of songs in, front man Brian Fallon told the crowd that he hoped the rain would hold off for the rest of their set… two seconds before the rain clouds drenched us all from head to toe.

Shane MacGowan attracted a huge following at the tent, many people eschewing The Cranberries on the open-air main stage for the relative warm and dry of a covered arena. The tenuous-toothed Pogues rascal sang an uncharacteristically lucid Dirty Old Town and delighted the audience with his rendition of the Neil Diamond classic Cracklin’ Rosie. The only disappointment for MacGowan fans, as overheard at the tent being; ‘I don’t think he’s drunk enough.’

The hiatus between Shane and headliner Bob Dylan allowed for a trip or two to the cider bar, a long queue for the loos and anticipation to mount among the mostly inebriated revellers. I had never experienced Dylan Live, and as he’s now in his 70th year, I imagine this will be my one and only chance.

Heading back to the main stage, it seems that the whole of London is assembled to witness possibly his last ever UK performance. I wonder if there’s some sort of secret affiliation between Dylan and The Tallest People In The World. As he finally takes the stage amid rapturous applause, all I can make out is his beacon-like white hat. Why no big screens at the sides of the stage, Feis organisers?

Bob certainly seemed to enter into the Irish spirit of things, energetically switching between keys, harmonica and guitar during his 90- minute set.

On paper the set list was every Dylan fan’s dream. The opening ballad It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue was followed up with iconic tunes galore. Songs like Tangled Up In Blue, Simple Twist of Fate and appropriately, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, were not immediately recognisable from their opening verses. This was mainly because Dylan sang a different version of everything, elongating some choruses and rattling through others at break-neck speed. The whole set was delivered in the vocal style of a Sesame Street character doing Dylan. In short, he seemed to be parodying a caricature of himself.

Like A Rolling Stone got the crowd chanting along, it was just that we were all singing the Bob Dylan original, while the man himself was sticking to the cartoon version. All Along The Watchtower and the finale Blowin’ In The Wind went down a storm once we’d worked out which songs they were and gave up trying to sing along.

As day one of Feis came to a close, I felt mixed emotions about the headline act. On one hand I felt privileged to have seen Dylan, one of the greatest musicians the world has ever known, in concert. On the other hand, his performance was not the work of an icon I know and love.

It was with some relief, after Saturday’s precipitation-fest that we woke on Sunday morning to blue-ish skies.

The Feis website led us to believe that Thin Lizzy would be playing the main stage before Van Morrison. This turned out not to be the case, Van proving to be both the headliner and the penultimate act. Contrary sod.

With only a few minutes to spare before Van-o’-clock, we rushed to the bar and hot-footed it over to the main stage. The festival seemed a lot less crowded on Sunday. Whether people were put off by Saturday’s constant rain, or were only interested in Dylan, I can’t be sure.

One thing is for sure, those who didn’t go to Feis on Sunday missed out on a spectacular event.

The sun shone as Van Morrison took to the stage with his brass band and placed himself behind a massive golden microphone. Baby Please Don’t Go was an invigorating opener, getting everybody singing and jigging along. Following up with rock essentials Here Comes The Night, Brown Eyed Girl, Real Real Gone and Moondance, Van flaunted a voice which is as rich, colourful and pitch-perfect as ever, if not more so.

Wedding staple Have I Told You Lately? brought a tear to many a girl’s eye, while my own reverie was broken during Wavelength when I had to shout at a drunken wanker for nearly pushing me over and, more seriously, spilling a bit of my pint. Morrison’s performance of In The Garden was another highlight. The beauty of the musical arrangement had an almost hypnotic effect on the previously raucous audience. Gloria was the perfect finale to a perfect set. Van Morrison, perhaps modestly, exited the stage before the end of the song, leaving his musicians to take the applause for his stellar performance.

Just when you think things can’t get any more exciting, there’s still Thin Lizzy to come! The band performed their hits Jailbreak, Whiskey In The Jar and The Boys Are Back In Town with more energy than could rightly be expected of them, last thing on a Sunday and to a tired (not to say booze-worn), rapidly dwindling crowd.

That was the London Feis 2011. Wonderful, if a little bit soggy.

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