With big headliners, special guests and a finale gathering the clans, the first Feis Liverpool at Pier Head promised much. Did it deliver? Well, the music was righteous and the crowd were great. Might need more ale next time, though. And a stop-watch. By Alan O’Hare. 

The first Feis brought with it big expectations. Van the Man headlining, an appearance from Shane MacGowan and a line-up brimful of legendary Irish folk heroes such as Finbar Furey, Sharon Shannon, The Chieftans and Damien Dempsey. Did it deliver?

It did… just. There were a few organisational problems (running out of lager late on and an over-running main stage), but with Pier Head bathed in beautiful sunlight and Liverpool in love with how it looked, they got away with it. For now. Sure, it was the first of its kind down by the river, but the organisors have a lifetime of this sort of thing under their belts and next year needs to run smoothly.

The music was magnificent. Headliner Van Morrison pulled rank when stage times overran and went on when he wanted, but delivered a set to satisfy himself and the crowd. Opening up with a trio of ‘Astral Weeks’ songs – the title track, ‘The Way That Young Lovers Do’ and ‘Sweet Thing’ – many casual fans might have been worried about the whereabouts of the hits, but the Belfast boy soon settled down into his usual set. Meeting at that crooning crossroad where jazz, blues and soul meet, Morrison made Liverpool move to that casual sound he’s made all his own, milking medleys of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’/’Got My Mojo Working’, alongside the basking ballads of ‘One Irish Rover’ and ‘Have I Told You Lately’. ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ (or “that ‘Black Eyed Girl'” as one drunken woman told my wife!) came later, but by then I was over at the second stage for the force of nature that is Donaghmede’s Damien Dempsey.

I’ve written about Dempsey before on this site, so suffice it to say that the big Irishman was on form. Pulling one of the biggest crowds of the day to the other stage (only eighties rockers Aslan pulled more to the side of the Cunard Building), Dempsey and his band powered through a big-hitting set full of sing-a-longs, stirring soul music and a version of ‘The Rocky Road To Dublin’ that threatened to take off and fly back across the Irish Sea. ‘Sing All Your Cares Away’ and ‘It’s All Good’ (“love yourself today”) brought the crowd together and as they sang along to every word, it felt like being in between an irresistible force and an immovable object.

Back over on the main stage, it was left to the rejuvenated Imelda May to follow the Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire… and follow him she did, with a set of stunning new songs of finesse and fragility that won the crowd over. May is no newcomer, and has sold a lot of records, but not many artists have a ‘Moondance’ or a ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ in the arsenal to win over a merry throng. That she did, with tunes culled from her excellent ‘Life. Love. Flesh. Blood’ record, says it all about this sensational singer and performer; the singing on ‘Black Tears’ and ‘Should’ve Been You’ was from the top drawer.

Surprise highlights included Therapy’s lively acoustic set, Foy Vance’s bruised ballads going over big with the transient crowd and the Celtic rock ‘n’ roll of The BibleCode Sundays, who were joined by Ian Prowse of Pele and Amsterdam for a tune or two. Local hero Prowse was due to get up and sing his most famous song, ‘Does This Train Stop On Merseyside?’, on the main stage for the big finale, but even with a half eleven curfew, the seisiún went long and some big names had to miss out.

That was a shame, as by now Feis was in full swing following jazz singer Mary Coughlin’s turning of the house with a rocking take on Christy Moore’s ‘Ride On’. With the light fading by the Mersey, and the Liver Building standing silent and sentinel next to it all, crowd and stage became one as the chorus crept up on us all with thousands of voices coming together. It was a special moment… as was the reception received by The Pogues’ legendary leader Shane MacGowan who was wheeled out for the finale and got through rough, ready and rousing takes on ‘Dirty Old Town’, ‘The Irish Rover’ and ‘Fiesta’. A couple of tunes later and it was all over, as thousands went sailing across a sea of plastic to carry on the party wherever they were headed.

Let’s hope Feis heads back to Liverpool in 2019 and all lessons are learned. Particular the one where Christy Moore provided the song of the day…

Imelda May, by John Johnson