The Guinness Fleadh
with X, John Lee Hooker, Squeeze, Billy Bragg, Wilco, Richard Thompson, and more
Arlington Race Track, Chicago • 6.25.98
Ahhhhhh… Guinness. Nothing like a thick, malty Guinness to clog your throat while you enjoy a good Fleadh on a hot summer afternoon. A Fleadh (pronounced “flay”) is an Irish tradition of drinking, dancing, and musical competition. This summer Guinness brought the concept stateside for select dates in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. The latest in a long line of traveling rock festivals (Lollapalooza/H.O.R.D.E./Lillith Fair/Monsters of Rock), this tour was notable for the richness of its musical integrity, with acts as diverse as the Chieftains, Tracy Chapman, Wilco, and Yo La Tengo among the many on the bill.
Despite the excellent lineup, the festival was marred. By mid-afternoon, many a disgruntled reveler at the Chicago stop was referring to it as the Guinness flawed tour. After forking out $45.00 for tickets, music lovers were forced to endure a litany of indignities: Water bottles and picnic baskets were not allowed. ATM machines weren’t available. Lines for basic amenities (like a $3.00 bottle of water), exceeded 30 minutes. Planning was poor, with most of the day’s best acts performing (for some inexplicable reason) in a tent that held a lot of body heat and very few bodies. Outside the tent the music was muffled, if audible at all.
Most obnoxious was the promoter’s utter refusal to post a concert schedule in the newspaper or on its Web site. Performance times weren’t even listed inside the park until enough people protested. You could buy a program, if you were willing to plunk down another $10.00.
I wasn’t about to let the inconveniences bother me (though I was composing an angry letter to Guinness in my head). I would have never thought there would be a rock and roll day when I could plant my feet in squarely in one place and see Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg, Squeeze, John Lee Hooker, and X all back to back in one place, but that’s exactly what happened. By the end of the day, two of the bands I saw would make it into my “top 10 best ever” performance list (read on and guess who they are!).
I didn’t enjoy Richard Thompson’s set much, though I’ve been getting into his mid 70’s album Pour Down Like Silver. I was too busy composing the angry letter and getting acquainted with the assholes and elbows I would be spending the next SEVEN HOURS with. 1,800 people crammed into a tent built for 500 and everyone talking the whole time. Hey! Go outside the tent if you don’t want to see Richard Thompson!
Billy Bragg was offered a little more respect than Richard Thompson (but not much more). He was joined by Wilco to perform interpretations of Woody Guthrie songs they recorded together on the upcoming LP, Mermaid Avenue (also reviewed in this issue). Lacking his usual wit and banter, Bragg played a straight-forward set, making only quick references to his own career with “A Lover Sings,” “Sexuality,” and “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward.”
Bragg was followed by Squeeze, who gave a raw and inspired set. They performed all of their classics — “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Black Coffee in Bed,” “Tempted”… it was like dropping the needle on Singles 45’s and Under at a frat party in the mid-80’s. Everybody was dancing, beer was swilling, and people were having fun.
There was an air of restlessness while the stage was being set for John Lee Hooker. I soon found out I wasn’t the only one who had come great distances to see the blues master, most of us making our way from birth through college in a fraction of the time Hooker has been making records.
Hooker’s warm-up band was good. They played three songs in typical Chicago blues style, entertaining enough in their own right. Halfway through the third song, Hooker wandered into the backstage — a specter waiting in the wings. His trademark hat and hunched shoulders were dark and ghostlike against the red back lighting. He stood for awhile before sitting down. At 81 and in poor health, he was tired before he even took the stage.
When he did take the stage, the tight, cramped tent took on the air of a riverside revival. A charged spirituality spread through the room. He waved at the crowd as he walked to the chair where he would be performing. His fingers were like spiders. His hands so big they blocked out lights.
Hooker’s set was all about feeling. Like a jazz show, he went where the mood took him, directing his band with waves of his fingers. Pointing up meant stop. Pointing up could also mean speed it up. Also, pointing up could mean change tempo. Somehow the band knew.
The music was a mish-mash. The only recognizable songs were “Boom Boom,” which is pretty much free-form in its own right, and “Serves You Right to Suffer,” which Hooker sang, head tilted forward toward the floor. A master minimalist, each word he uttered was like a knife of shame. Serves you right to suffer. Serves you right to be alone. You are a bastard.
The rest of the show was a rambling treatment of Hooker’s sparse guitar work backed by a sometimes over-powering, ham-fisted band. Hooker would play and utter whatever words came to his head “hey there… boogie woogie,” “woe! woe! Boogie Woogie,” “yeah… yeah… yeah… YOU! YOU! YOU! Yeah,.” I think I heard bits of “Boogie Chillin” in there somewhere, or maybe it was “The House Rent Boogie,” either way, the boogie was there that night. It was in there, and it had to come out.
It was amazing just to watch Hooker. Just to look at him — hands moving slowly like spiders. With over 60 years of performing experience, he held his band, the people backstage (who crowded around to watch) and every member of the audience in a transfixed spell. He was like a diviner, pulling moods, feelings, and other dark things out of the air. The divining rod was his guitar, the transmitter was his voice. When he left the stage the audience just stood in silence. We had been in the presence of greatness.
It took a band like X to snap us out of our stupor. I don’t even remember what their first song was. I don’t remember them setting up or anything… they were just there! John Doe, D.J. Bonebrake, Billy Zoom, and Exene Cervenka — the original members in all their raw, underclass glory.
Put the double disk Los Angeles/Wild Gift on shuffle and you have their set list. Everything they played (with the exception of “The New World”) came off those first two albums, and despite the lines and wrinkles in their faces, they had all the energy and power they must have had in 1981. “White Girl,” “We’re Desperate,” “The World’s A Mess (It’s In My Kiss),” “The Unheard Music”… they just kept throwing them at us all night long. No talk between songs. No bullshit.
There was no way to stop dancing, they looked better than they did back in ’81.
They weren’t all strung out on drugs. John Doe looked every bit the rock and roll rebel he has always been, with his cut off T-shirt and black, belted boots. The Freddy Mercury mustache was kinda gay, but otherwise he looked good. D.J. Bonebrake didn’t do any of his flips like he used to, so maybe he has back problems now. Exene Cervenka looked downright sexy as she rolled her bedroom eyes at the audience. I’m not saying she looked good (like a model). I’m saying she looked sexy. Seductive. She had some kind of power.
It was good to have Billy Zoom back. The wide-eyed guitarist from Dubuque, Iowa. Playing the straight man to the rest of the punk insanity, his hair was combed back, his legs spread cowboy style as he laid out one sharp 50’s riff after another. That searching grin he was always known for was almost creepy in real life.
Seeing X live was the realization they were that rare commodity, the perfect band. John Doe’s Elvis-like hiccup backed with Exene’s strung-out, almost whining backup vocals, punctuated with D.J. Bonebrake’s punchy drumming and Zoom’s stinging Chuck Berry guitar riffs. And don’t forget Ray Manzarek’s keyboards (yes… that Ray Manzarek, from the Doors — he was on their first two albums). A truly original sound. All of this, plus the writing that could be funny and apocalyptic at the same time: “Set the trash on fire, and watch outside the door/A thousand kids, bury their parents… ” Wow! That’s scary!
Where would they have gone if Billy Zoom hadn’t left the band?
Well, they’re back now. See ’em when they come to town. Wear your dancing shoes.
Shane MacGowen, from the Pogues/Popes was up next, but to be honest, I didn’t have the energy. Not knowing if he was going to pull his classic routine of being half hour to an hour late to the gig, we decided to head back into Chicago for beer. Too bad. I heard he snarled his way through Pogues classics like “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” with reckless abandon. But I suppose one can only have so much reckless abandon in one night.
While walking out we saw people were waiting for taxis because the concert organizers hadn’t arranged for the Chicago subway to run late for the crowds. Also, the traffic cops pointed us out in a general direction and we, like a train of people following us, got lost, and ended up driving around for 45 minutes before we got back on track. Minor irritants. If the Guinness Fleadh could get the music so right, I could put up with the flaws.
So, I was happy. My angry letter to Guinness reads simply this — “Get the kinks out and come back next year!” If it comes, get yourself a plane ticket and go see it.