Sunday 27 May 2018

Féile's best bits - and how did festivals become so sanitised?

With Féile returning for 2018, Tony Clayton-Lea looks back at the best moments from the Thurles event, and how festivals became so sanitised

Tipp top: That Petrol Emotion on stage during Féile 1991 in Thurles
Tipp top: That Petrol Emotion on stage during Féile 1991 in Thurles

September 22, Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co Tipperary: Féile is back. And so are the Irish bands that became incredibly well known in the 1990s because of it - Something Happens, The Stunning, Hothouse Flowers, An Emotional Fish, The 4 of Us, The Frank and Walters. There isn't one music act on that list that doesn't deserve its place in the Irish Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, and not one act that doesn't have songs played on Irish radio.

Rebranded as Féile Classical, the festival will no doubt be a different beast in 2018 - time and tastes have moved on, and the way we expect open-air events to be organised has radically altered. For starters, as Féile Classical is a one-night-only event, there will be no camping. It is fully seated. There will be 2018-style toilets, gourmet food tents, including options for vegetarians and vegans.

The range of alcohol on sale will include a prosecco 'area', a bespoke gin bar, and pints poured from a keg. It is called Féile Classical because the Irish Chamber Orchestra will accompany the bands on stage. It is (as any veteran of those Trip to Tipp shows held at Semple Stadium will tell you) very far from where we were raised.

But let's not get too cynical. Event organiser and host, Newstalk presenter Tom Dunne (himself a veteran of the classic Féile events as a member of Something Happens), knows that the early to mid 90s was a time of great optimism for Ireland and Irish music. Irish bands were doing good work, releasing highly accessible and radio-friendly tunes, Italia 90 had engaged the country in the beautiful game, and the Féile shows introduced a rite of passage for music fans that had never before been experienced in Ireland. Describing Féile as Ireland's Woodstock or Glastonbury might be overstating it, but Dunne is correct when he says Féile was special and (in retrospect) iconic.

And look where those Trips to Tipp led to: Oxegen, Electric Picnic, Body and Soul, and every two/three-day music festival in Ireland since.

Féile didn't necessarily epitomise the golden age of Irish music festivals, but it was certainly the beginning of something new. There was an excitement and energy to the Semple Stadium events that could never have been - and never was - replicated. There was also a sense of the unknown, untried, untested - the usual rules didn't apply because they weren't there to begin with.

Féile Classical will certainly be good fun, of course, but it will be good, organised, focused, comfortable fun, and so much more sophisticated than anyone who went to Thurles from 1990-1994 could ever have imagined. Let the memories be mucky, then, and not much else.

Five best Féile moments

1. Féile 1990: a triumphant debut

Irish influence: Brendan Murphy from The 4 of Us at Féile
Irish influence: Brendan Murphy from The 4 of Us at Féile

There wasn't one specific moment here - it was the full weekend. The number of Irish acts on the line-up (15 out of 20) was indicative of a moment in Irish rock music where you sensed that homegrown talent was finally given a stage big enough to make a difference. While U2 were 'resting' between albums (1988's Rattle and Hum, and 1991's Achtung Baby), other Irish rock acts were in the wings, waiting their turn, flexing their muscles. It may sound overly nostalgic to say this now from a distance of - holy moley! - 27 years, but there was no small amount of pride at watching the likes of Something Happens, That Petrol Emotion, An Emotional Fish, The 4 of Us, The Stunning and Hothouse Flowers belting out big songs on a big stage.

2. Féile 1991: The Saw Doctors

If you look at the line-up for Féile 1990, you will see close to the bottom of the bill on the third day was a band called The Saw Doctors. By 1991, the Tuam band were way up the bill on Saturday. The festival's line-up had almost doubled in size (approximately 36, of which about 19 were Irish acts) and its international reach was expanding. The Saw Doctors grasped the opportunity and shook Semple Stadium by the neck, ferret-like, until it submitted. Even sceptics had to admit that for this Féile (and the 1992 event, which saw the band placed second from the top on Saturday night, delivering a far more raucous set than the nominal headline act, Simply Red), The Saw Doctors ran away with the top prize.

3. Féile 1992: Cup throwing with David Byrne

Year three of Féile and it was well in its stride with more international acts and some Irish bands (the virtually invincible Saw Doctors, closely followed by The Stunning and The 4 of Us) slugging it out with major acts such as Bryan Adams, The Beautiful South and Simply Red. The highlight of this one, however, was the left-of-centre display of showmanship by David Byrne, who somehow caught what for many was a defining Féile moment when, during his set, the crowd synchronised the throwing of paper cups into the air. It was, like, beautiful, man.

4. Féile 1993: Irish acts rule

This was the first Féile to have an additional stage. Aside from the main stage acts (which included Iggy Pop, INXS, Madness, and Chris de Burgh), Hot Press had its own standalone tent. Memories of this event included De Burgh's crowd-pleasing performance (arguably his final large-scale gig in front of an Irish audience) and yet another range of great Irish acts (including A House, The Frank and Walters, The 4 of Us, The Fat Lady Sings, That Petrol Emotion, My Little Funhouse, Sultans Of Ping). The writing, however, was on the wall, especially outside Semple Stadium, which was covered with the detritus and general shenanigans of more people than Thurles could handle.

5. Féile 1994: Rage Against the Machine

Féile's final year at Thurles was a two-day event, filmed by MTV. The GAA's arrangement with promoters MCD had run its course, a decision compounded by numerous objections from the local community.

The tenor of the line-up was also changing from rock and pop (Crowded House, Elvis Costello) to dance and hip-hop (Primal Scream, The Prodigy, Paul Oakenfold, House of Pain, Cypress Hill, Ireland's Sound Crowd Orchestra), and with fewer Irish acts (Bob Geldof, Aslan, and Féile stalwarts The Stunning).

A personal highlight was Rage Against the Machine, whose search-and-destroy, guitar-shredding approach seemed at odds, sonically and politically, with an audience whose previous Féile experience had included singing along to the chorus of 'Patricia the Stripper'.

Time to pack up, time to leave.

What came next (in 2000) was Witnness, which morphed into Oxegen. But that, as they say, is a different story altogether.

Irish Independent

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