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Erin Go Rock

[whitespace] Young Dubliners
Carl Studna

Celtic Power: The Young Dubliners sing traditional Irish songs with an undercurrent of punk-rock power.

The spirit--if not the origin of the bands--is all Irish at Fleadh festival

By Gina Arnold

FORGET LILITH FAIR. Forget H.O.R.D.E. Forget the Furthur Festival, the Vans Warped Tour, OzzFest or the Tibetan Freedom Concert. The Guinness Fleadh, which takes place at Spartan Stadium on Sunday (June 28), is the only day-long rock festival that matters this year.

It's not mere Irish prejudice on my part that makes me say that, either--but a glance at the blockbuster lineup. There's not a bad band on the bill, although, admittedly, there are quite a few that aren't even remotely Irish. Indeed, although in theory the Fleadh, which is sponsored by the famous Irish beer company Guinness, bills itself as a "celebration of Irish Culture," what that seems to come down to in practice is a celebration of something that most people, Irish or not, love: loud, raucous, slightly sentimental, emotionally truthful and occasionally rather verbose rock music.

How else to explain the inclusion of such ethnically diverse acts as Los Lobos, Chumbawamba, Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg, Joe Ely, Wilco, Tracy Chapman, John Lee Hooker, Alejandro Escovedo, Nanci Griffith and X?

"The thread that holds the bill together is songwriting," says Exene Cervenka, of X. "Beer and songwriting. Every act on the bill is a songwriting act in a traditional and folk sense. Los Lobos, Joe Ely, Wilco--we're all writing songs from the same place Irish music comes from."

Cervenka, who says she's half Irish but admits that no one else in her band sports any Irish blood at all, is right. What the bands at Fleadh have in common isn't ethnicity but a certain, almost indefinable, musical esprit. And that leaves the door wide open for bands that have been shut out of other, more specific and trendy festivals.

"We were turned down for Lollapalooza every year," Cervenka comments, "and although Lilith Fair talked to us, they said our focus wasn't 'female' enough. But Fleadh is about something more substantial than just gender. If this were 10 years ago, it would be a place for the Replacements, the Minutemen and the Blasters, bands that were about the American tradition of songwriting."

Fleadh (the word means "festival" in Gaelic) is not a full-fledged tour yet, however. It began as a weekend festival in Ireland in the mid-'90s, spread to New York in 1997 and will take place in three American locations this year: New York, Chicago and San Jose.

In addition to X, there are numerous Irish bands on the bill, including the Chieftains, Altan, Mary Black, the Corrs, the Saw Doctors and Shane MacGowan; and there will also be an Irish Village stage that will feature Irish American bands, poets, dancers and a reading by Irish author Patrick McCabe, author of The Butcher Boy.

ONE OF THE great strengths of Irish culture is its ability to blend its music with those of other cultures, without losing any of its sonic pungency or meaning. The Irish people are anything but purists and seem to welcome input from every quarter. Riverdance, with its mix of traditional dances and flashy showmanship, is the most obvious example, but Ireland's traditional musical instrumentation also travels well.

American folk and country music are heavily based on traditional Irish ballads brought over by settlers in the 17th century. And folk music--allied to R&B--is, of course, the basis of all rock & roll. Small wonder, then, that the Irish excel at the modern rock idiom.

Keith Roberts is the singer for the Young Dubliners, an L.A.-based band of displaced Irishmen and Americans who will headline the second stage at Fleadh. Roberts, who has lived in the U.S. for nine years, remarks on the curious ability of Irish musicians to absorb other musics--and vice versa.

"Irish music doesn't just mean 'deedily-diddily' anymore," Roberts says, "but still, it's a bit of a stretch to say some of these [Fleadh] bands were influenced by Ireland. I mean, it's easy to say it, but you sure can't hear it when you listen to X."

Like many an Irish person, however, Roberts has no problem with other people embracing his country of origin. In fact, he admits to gaining a new appreciation for it himself--as soon as he left its shores.

"If you have an Irish accent, people just assume you're going to break into an Irish ballad at the drop of a hat," he says, "and the truth is, I didn't grow up with that at all. But there's no doubt about it, when you're away from home, you suddenly appreciate the Gaelic stuff more. In Dublin, I only played in rock bands, but here I started going to Irish pubs where the jukeboxes were loaded down with music by the Pogues and the Chieftains."

Soon, Roberts admits, those influences crept back into his music. The Young Dubliners--who are not to be confused with the band called just the Dubliners--play hard rock with Celtic overtones, including some Irish ballads that are given the punk-rick treatment.

"It's just modernization--like Riverdance--and I just love that idea," Roberts says. "We do this song, 'Follow Me up to Carlo,' which is an 18th-century ballad about a battle that took place in the 1500s, and we had a hit with it this year.

"To me, it's incredible to think that such an old song is now being cheered like it's a punk-rock anthem in Cincinnati in 1998."

Roberts also doesn't resent the influx of non-Irish bands on the Fleadh bill one bit. "It's like Fleadh's saying, Here's a bunch of Irish bands that couldn't pull the skin off a rice pudding together, so here's some more popular bands to get people into the stadium. And that's fine. The American guys in my band couldn't give a fiddler's [about the more traditional Irish band], but I'm thrilled and flattered to be on a bill with the Chieftains and the others. I'm going to make sure we get to the stadium early to see every one of them."

WHETHER FLEADH'S--or rather Guinness'--marketing of the vague idea of Irishness is going to pack stadiums this summer remains to be seen, but both X and the Young Dubliners certainly hope so. Roberts, for one, hopes that Fleadh's success will help boost the profile of Irish bands on the radio--just as Lilith Fair helped acoustic women folksingers and Lollapalooza aided "alternative" bands.

Although Irish bands like the Young Dubliners do well in a live context, American radio has not opened up to them at all, according to Roberts. "They think Celtic rock doesn't fit their format--though it does," he says.

The exception to this rule is, of course, the Chumbawamba song "Tubthumping," which uses the refrain of "Danny Boy," Ireland's most famous ballad. (Chumbawamba, which hails from Leeds, England, will also perform at Fleadh.) "There's not an Irish person in America who didn't think, 'You bastards!' when they heard that," Roberts jokes. "But it's such a great song!"

Roberts admits that Americans' newfound love of all things Irish may have a bit of blarney in it--and may even be confused with a deep love of beer. ("If you're Irish in America," he says sadly, "everyone presumes you're a drunk.")

Last month, for example, when both Ireland and Ulster voted to pass their historic peace agreement, Roberts began making pronouncements from the stage. "I say, 'I'd like to thank the Protestant people for voting 'yes,' and it usually gets a cheer, but sometimes it's a pretty confused cheer."

Still, says Roberts, it's an announcement worth making, whether Americans "give a fiddler's" or not. "The other day in Portland," he relates, "I said something about there being peace in Ireland at last, and I don't care what the audience thought about it. I've been waiting my whole life to say that."

The Guinness Fleadh takes place Sunday (June 28), noon-11pm, at Spartan Stadium, San Jose. Tickets are $42.50. (BASS)

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From the June 25-July 1, 1998 issue of Metro.

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