The Billy Bragg show last night was fine. It got off to a strong start with the opening set by the Watson Twins (whom I didn’t know would be there). They performed “Old Ways,” “How Am I To Be,” “Ain’t No Sunshine/Just Like Heaven,” “Bar Woman Blues,” “Only You,” “Sky Open Up” (a Cure cover), and “Southern Manners.” The Twins blend beautifully, and they work well in the bare-bones context of a Bragg solo tour.
After a short break, the Bragg set began. Billy launched directly into an apposite “Help Save The Youth Of America,” followed by a series of political exhortations, shaggy dog stories, brutal puns (“We’re the last pun rockers,” he deadpans), autobiographical anecdotes, and selections from his extensive repertoire of songs. From “Youth,” he proceeded to the newer song “Farm Boy,” then “Greetings To The New Brunette,” “Mr. Love & Justice,” and then shifted into a Woody Guthrie sequence with “Ingrid Bergman.” “Bergman,” though, established a consistent weak point of the evening’s performance: instead of just wise-cracking and urging his case for democratic socialism, he persistently explained, to the point of belaboring, jokes and allusions. He signaled this tendency by calling attention to the “more impressionable when my cement is wet” line in “Greetings”; for “Ingrid Bergman,” he instructed the audience not to think that Woody Guthrie’s volcano metaphors referred solely, or even primarily, to geological phenomena. He then performed “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key,” affirming that this song showed the same degree of carnality as “Bergman.” He then turned to Guthrie’s political passion, performing a down-tempo, blue-tinged version of “I Ain’t Got No Home” (link to Woody’s version and here, to Bruce Springsteen’s).
Bragg returned to his own material for “N. P. W. A. (No Power Without Accountability),” which underscored another problem with the evening: Bragg’s more recent material exchanges the articulate passion of his earlier work for an earnest (but less exalted) didacticism. It’s as though he feels obliged to write “Billy Bragg songs,” so he slathers songs with names and terms from current issues of The Guardian or Financial Times. As a result, his tremendous lyrical and performing gifts struggle to overcome the inertia from such lines as “The ballot box is no guarantee/that we achieve democracy,” even when he can sling the response, “Who are these people? Who elected them?/And how do I replace them with some of my friends?” “NPWA” has a propulsive tune, but the abbreviations of the names of international organizations weight it down. If Bragg had turned the chorus over to the audience, he might have been able to play off the energy of a rousing sing-along; instead, he sang the chorus himself, which didn’t do much to enliven the pace. On the other hand, his long narrative about observing the electoral process in the USA with three other bewildered Brits (he joked that they’re making a tour documentary about it, to be entitled “Noam Chomsky For Old Men”) amply communicated the bemused texture of his ardent political commitment.
He then returned to “Sexuality,” but he (again) over-talked the jokes in the fade-out. In a fine, strong cover version, Bill reminded his audience to look up Laura Nyro’s catalog, from which he performed “Save The Country.” Next was his own “O Freedom,” (a Guantanamo-aware restatement of the stronger “Rotting On Remand,” which shows how detail and relevance don’t need to derail a song’s politics). “The Milkman of Human Kindness” and “The Saturday Boy” showed Bragg at his best, which he followed with a story about his recent (not-yet-released) composition, “Old Clash Fan’s Fight Song” — which showed he could still capture the Tube-busker vigor that propelled his career at the start.
He wrapped up the concert with “I Keep Faith,” which he dedicated to the audience: “Don’t ever think that a musician can change the world — not even Bono — it’s the audience that can change the world” (though he told the audience the song was for them, after the set he acknowledged that it’s written for his wife Juliet, and that their son Jack gets irritated when Bill says it’s for the audience). The transnational solidarity in which he vests his faith came out in a rousing “There Is Power In A Union,” and the set concluded with “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward” (another song that, sadly, would have benefited from more audience participation, and fewer flat topicalized verses).
The encore commemorated the late Levi Stubbs with an emphatic version of “Levi Stubbs’s Tears,” the Watson Twins joining him for “Sing Their Souls Back Home,” and wrapping up with a solo version of “A New England” (with the Kirsty MacColl verse).
After the show, Bill amiably mingled with lingering fans, telling stories, posing for photos, signing autographs, and refreshing himself with a post-gig Corona (his beverage of choice during the gig is Traditional Medicinals” “Throat Coat”).
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Bragg fan, so I enjoyed the evening immensely (and bought the “Revolution Is Just A T-Shirt Away” t-shirt). Still, the night wasn’t as vigtorous, not as compelling, not as there as was the night Margaret and I saw him at the Keswick Theater outside Philadelphia. OK, he’s older, and the aggregate age of teh audience was older; but his habit of pattering through favorite parts of his best songs tends to distance both the audience and himself from his strongest material. That disarms the possibility of a star trip — he’s just a bloke, playing some songs — but it also undercuts some of the strength, the musical power, and the sense of shared exhilaration that energizes his audience and sends them out changed. Still, even an off night from Billy Bragg is funnier, more deeply politically moving, and more provocative than the best nights of plenty of acts, and many of us will long remember seeing Billy Bragg just three days before the momentous election of 2008.