St Etienne

Billy Bragg @ O2 Institute 2, 1 December 2019

There are not many artists I have seen more than four times, Frank Black is one and Billy Bragg is the other… although not for many, many years.  The first time I saw Billy play live was in December 1985 at the Birmingham Odeon, then a month later at the same venue as part of the Red Wedge tour, then nine months later at the Powerhouse, and finally two years later at the Alexandra Theatre (with Michelle Shocked and Michael Franti’s Beatnigs supporting, what a gig that was!).  

Billy Bragg’s current tour is a little different from usual tours, instead of one night in one city, he is playing three consecutive nights, but with each night a different period of his career.  Tonight he describes as his standard career long setlist, tomorrow only covers his first three albums and the day after, the second three albums.  In some ways I guess this is a great idea, because if you prefer an artist’s early work you can choose that night, and likewise if you want an overview of all his work, you pick tonight.  If I were cynical I could argue that some fans may want to see all three shows and therefore are paying for three tickets, when normally they would only buy one, but I’m not.  He has sold out each night, so clearly there is still a high demand for all of his work.

I initially thought that Billy’s live set up would change over the three nights and he would be doing his ‘No bass and drums’ for the early part of his career and a full band on the other two nights, but he admits early on that for this tour it is just him and his three guitars.  He jokes about having a six piece string section and then points to the six strings on his iconic green Burns Steer.

It is amazing to think that an artist with a career lasting over thirty five years could remain so consistent.  Billy sings and plays exactly the same as when I first saw him on the Tube in 1983; still spitting out lyrics and smashing the hell out of his guitar strings.  Some musicians improve with age, some wear out, but Billy is so untouched it is frightening.  Even his in between song banter is delivered in that same personable way, as if we are down the pub or buying a bag of oranges from him down the market: anecdotes that end up as jokes, that leave you wondering how much of the tale is true and how much has been embellished.  There is a feeling, despite the seemingly improvised delivery, that this is all well scripted, which I guess is the only actual change.  Billy is just the same as he ever was, but now he is the consummate professional.

He says at one point: ‘No one could describe me as slick’ but the thing is, Billy Bragg is just that because he plays his part exactly — his slickness is the way he looks like he is winging it at times, but actually he is performing now more than he ever did.  Throughout his early career you could see in his eyes that he didn’t have a choice but to sing his songs, now he does and he chooses to play an affable, romantic bloke who feels strongly about politics.  The stories that take up a lot of show are delivered seemingly off the cuff, as if for the first time, but it is tightly choreographed like a boardroom presentation.

Of course it helps that Billy has written a career’s worth of great songs and on this night he cherry picks from his favourites.  Highlights are the singalong moments in ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’ and ‘To Have and to Have Not’.  The utterly heartbreakingly beautiful ‘Levi Stubb’s Tears’ featuring the greatest opening line of all time:  “With the money from her accident she bought herself a mobile home”.  The pertinent ‘It Says Here’ with the greatest last line of all time: “When you wake up to the fact that your paper is Tory.  Just remember, there are two sides to every story”.  ‘Greetings to the New Brunette’ is introduced with a story about Big Daddy, although Billy used to say driving up through south Birmingham inspired the song’s opening call to Shirley.  There is also a stunning rendition, including updated lyrics, of ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards’; and finally the beautifully simple, but somehow now mythical ‘A New England’, including the additional verse for Kirsty.

Billy also paid his dues to those that went before him playing songs by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and also those that followed, Anaïs Mitchell’s poignant ‘Why We Build the Wall’.  It really is a fine mix of songs performed in his own inimitable style.  Having the luxury of now seeing the next two nights’ setlists I do wish I could have seen him play things like ‘Must I Paint You A Picture’ or ‘The Saturday Boy’ again with the stunning line “In the end it took me a dictionary to find out the meaning of unrequited” and I wonder if everyone sang along with the “La la la la la la la la la means I love you” line.  I hope so.

From the outpouring of affection from the audience tonight, I guess that many are like me who left school in the mid-80s with the sound of Bragg’s lyrics ringing in our ears: “At twenty one you’re on top of the scrapheap.  At sixteen you were top of your class.  All they taught you at school was how to be a good worker.  The system has failed you, don’t fail yourself”.  It is difficult to fully stress how much this meant at the time, and still does.

I have to thank Billy Bragg for two things: firstly for opening my heart to socialism, and secondly, and possibly more importantly, for introducing me to Sam Cooke and Motown music – the first time I heard ‘A Change Gonna Come’ was when Billy sang it at the Powerhouse in 1986 and from originally thinking ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ was about the famous jeans I was inevitably drawn to the Four Tops and everything else from Mr Gordy’s label… my life would not be the same without that beauty, so thank you Billy.

I wrote a few years ago that music and politics had become divorced with the promotion of corporate pop music over songs with substance, but now a new red wedge is forming with bands like The Blinders and Pagans SOH who are actively promoting and encouraging people to become politically active – something I am sure Billy Bragg would be happy with.

Reviewer: Alan Neilson

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