The first London Feis certainly lived up to it’s promise to provide the best in Irish music this weekend, and though Bob Dylan was clearly being billed as the star attraction, there was far more to it than the presence of one great man. Sliding through the mud across the front of the main stage to the inventively named ‘Stage Two’, a tent set out behind a long line of food, drink and (numerous) ice cream vans, it soon became clear this was going to hold a fair few of my personal highlights of the festival.
It was also the place to watch the more traditional Irish folk acts with performances by the likes of The Fureys and Sharon Shannon, although there were of course some notable exceptions. Christy Moore, a man voted a few years back as Ireland’s greatest living musician, delivered a heartfelt set before Dylan on the main stage, capturing the voices of young and old alike with a poignancy of lyric which was not lost on anyone. A sharp contrast to The Cranberries pop-rock which he followed.
As Dolores belted out songs clear as the first time they were sung, her vocal ability acted as a reminder of why the band are still packing in audiences years after their heyday. Zombie and Linger still sound as timeless as their first release and Dolores still commands the stage, this time aided by a lilac feather boa. Though the drizzle doesn’t relent the crowd seem undeterred, a sea of bodies forming a thick crowd as far back as the sound desk, shouting back every lyric. In some ways their set seems completely at odds with what is about to follow, but as the crowd belt out Salvation I am reminded that not every message to come out of Ireland is about it’s own history and politics.
As good as these two acts were, however, the undoubted highlight of my day was back on ‘Stage Two’. Though not Irish by birth Nanci Griffith has had a long standing relationship with Ireland, no better demonstrated than in It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go, which was met to wild applause. You could argue she’s something of a dreamer, proclaiming before the opening verse ‘one day, may there be departments of peace, not departments of war’ but as the winner of a Bill of Rights Award from the American Civil Liberties Union, her utopian idealism seems to capture the hearts of the packed out tent. Whether it’s the award winning The Loving Kind or The Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness Nanci is met with a number of faces mouthing lyrics back at her and couples locked in loving embrace.
Though Tequila After Midnight seemed to fall slightly flat, Gulf Coast Highway left several weeping eyes (mine included) with a poetic poignancy which seems to become amplified in the live arena. With an extensive back catalogue there’s little shortage of songs for Nanci to pick from but she pitches the set perfectly, From A Distance, Listen To The Radio and Troubled Fields making their way into the line up, to audience delight. Nevertheless it’s the timeless Love At The Five And Dime which for me acts as the triumph of Nanci’s set. The seduction of the unmistakable guitar rhythm, laced under a heartfelt tale mark Nanci at her best.