Billy Bragg has been writing and performing for thirty years; he tells us this much in one of his many trademark entertaining asides between songs. It has been a long career and one now that holds a back-catalogue of songs of such quality and depth that a two hour show barely scratches the surface of the man’s oeuvre. Especially when Bragg is a man always keen to make known his cultural debts.
When he first came on to the scene in 1983 he was part of the ripple effect of the first thrashes of punk, an artist engorged by the message and attitude of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. But Bragg is a disciple of Dylan also, and a devotee of American dustbowl protest singing, as well as the soul and R ‘n’ B of Motown, Stax and Atlantic. One of the reasons why Bragg is such a significant voice in modern song-writing is that when artists such as Paul Weller were trying to mimic their heroes in the 80s, Bragg was assimilating them. And so at St David’s Hall tonight the audience are given just a snapshot at what a great songwriter Bragg is; a writer of Billy Bragg songs, but in them is Woody Guthrie, Dylan, The Clash, Hank Marvin, Barratt Strong and Holland, Dozier and Holland. Bragg is the child of all this combined genius, but he is also simply, unmistakably Billy Bragg.
His new band is extremely accomplished; it takes some doing to watch Bragg accompanied on stage on not miss The Blokes. But it is a simple line-up, a traditional rock n roll line-up of drums, bass, guitar, keyboard and front man (Bragg), that lends a countrified lilt to some of his most famous compositions. CJ Hillman lends a very distinctive guitar line to every track he plays on, his pedal steel being the most dominant feature on the songs from the new album Tooth and Nail. The few songs from that record that make an appearance tonight sit remarkably comfortably among the classics, and this is down as much to Bragg’s attitude to his material as their quality. If Bragg takes several moments to preach his politics, he never preaches about his material. His songs stand and fall on how they travel from the stage to the audience. If ‘Handyman Blues’ is a mere footnote in his career, it is still no less pleasurable to see performed. Nobody can deny (and I doubt Bragg would) that it has been a while since he wrote anything as marvellous as ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ or ‘Between the Wars’, but his talent has many charms, contrary to the views of some.
Bragg delivers versions of Guthrie’s ‘All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose’ (which he made his own in the eighties) as well as a heartbreaking solo version of ‘I Aint Got No Home In This World Anymore’. It is here that Bragg shows his real worth as a performer, but, perhaps more importantly, as a cultural figure. He introduces the song to the message that it was written sixty years ago when banks were repossessing homes and hard-working families were being tossed into the street by bankers and complicit political elites. The song goes on to speak for itself, updated with subtlety and nuanced musicianship. His solo rendition of one of his most successful recent protest songs, ‘Never Buy the Sun’, dedicated to ‘Justice for the 96’, is as enlivening, enraging and touching as anything Guthrie ever performed.
The evening is also poignant with the presence of those no longer with us. Bragg almost always evokes the spirit of his late friend Kirsty MacColl when he includes her verse from her hit cover of his ‘A New England’. He pays homage to former Wilco man Jay Bennett with a moving rendition of ‘California Stars’, a highlight of the magnificent first Mermaid Avenue album, for which Bennett was a major driving force. And Lou Reed is given his credit for allowing a young passionate whippersnapper in Barking to believe that if you could write songs from the heart it didn’t matter if you could sing or play guitar, you still had something to say.
But when Bragg plays he plays for all – and he plays for the music of all time. ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’ will never be finished, the verses moving quick sharp to forever keep topical; the theme of corruption and elitism is eternal. And in that sense there is an answer to Bragg’s thirty years-and-counting. He himself is relevant, where others had fallen by the wayside. He tells a story of seeing Spandau Ballet on Top of the Pops in 1982 singing about girls whilst ‘dressed in their mothers’ curtains’ and realising that he was going to have to be the one to write the songs that needed writing. He still is. Bragg is a product of his time, but also a product outside of time, and his considerable talent, not to mention his contribution to modern British culture, should not underestimated.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis