The first I heard about this collaboration between the Bard of Barking and leading American new country exponents Wilco must have been when buying records from my favourite record shop Diverse, over a year ago. What was unknown at that time was that Billy Bragg and Wilco were working on an album of previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics, set to music by Bragg and Wilco at the behest of Woodys daughter Nora. These 15 songs were selected from a haul of over 1,000 unrecorded lyrics that Guthrie had written, the music for which had existed only in his head, lost forever when he died in 1967. Mermaid Avenue is the name of the Coney Island street where the Guthrie familiy lived in the years following World War II.
Thats the story behind this release, the tale that seems to have garnered it more colour supplement column inches than any other album this year outside of Massive Attacks latest; what matters is what "Mermaid Avenue" sounds like. The little of Guthries music that Ive heard suggests that he placed technical accomplishment and melodic invention some way below emotion and feeling, to say the least, so its perhaps a relief that Bragg and Wilco havent felt the need to flatter the author by imitation, alternately whooping it up in a party stylee ("Walt Whitmans Niece", "Hoodoo Voodoo"), playing gentle introspection ("Birds And Ships", which features vocals by post-punk Americas undisputed folk queen Natalie Merchant, and "Eisler On The Go") or even Wilcos trademark finely-honed country rock ("California Stars", "She Came Along To Me"). Best bits for me are the aforementioned "Eisler On The Go", written about fellow left-wing songwriter Hans Eisler, who had been called to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activites, and the majestic closer "The Unwelcome Guest".
Perhaps the biggest revelation "Mermaid Avenue" offers is whats happened to Billy Braggs voice in the decade or so since the last album of his that I own (the very fine "Talking With The Taxman About Poetry"). Could this really be the same Mr Bragg who bellowed "Shirley" in his trademark nasal honk on "Greetings To The New Brunette"? These days he sounds like he could be a member of Wilco - sometimes recourse to the lyric sheet is required just to check whether youre listening to Bragg or that bands Jeff Tweedy, who shared lead vocal duties - and thats meant as a compliment.
Ultimately I dont think "Mermaid Avenue" will go down in history as a great album, not for its musical qualities at least. For me it doesnt show either Billy Bragg or Wilco at their considerable best, but given the three-way collaborative nature of the project perhaps that was to be expected. If you like Wilco, youll almost definitely enjoy it, if you like Billy Bragg youll probably like it, and even if, as a Woody Guthrie fan, you dont enthuse over the music theres still the tantalising prospect of 15 new lyrics to mull over.
BILLY BRAGG Victim Of Geography (Cooking Vinyl)
BILLY BRAGG Don't Try This At Home (Cooking Vinyl)
Is it possible that we don't appreciate Billy Bragg enough in this country? These reissues of some of his mid-period work argue an eloquent case for the motion. "Victim Of Geography" serves up "Talking With The Taxman About Poetry" (1986) and "Workers Playtime" (1988) in a single package. The former is already an accredited classic around here, from the big-nosed bard's opening holler of "Shirley!" to the closing few seconds' synthesised rendition of "Jerusalem". Although it sounds a little like a historical time capsule (remember Red Wedge, anyone?) and the more political tracks appear rather quaint in these sophisticated times, the sentiments of the singles "Greetings To The New Brunette" and "Levi Stubbs' Tears" have resolutely refused to yellow with age. The production might appear somewhat clangourous today (it probably sounded so fifteen years ago, as well) but you can't argue with Bragg's thesaurus-twisting wordplay (he's probably Elvis Costello's only serious rival in the regard), finely-tuned ear for a sweet melody or talent at assembling a sparse but specialist backup team (which includes Smiths/The The/Electronic guitarist Johnny Marr and the late, lamented Kirsty McColl).
"Workers Playtime" continues the gradual opening out of Bragg's sound, a few more slivers of instrumentation distancing this effort a little further from his spiky debut. Guests this time round include Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, veteran session types Danny Thompson and B J Cole and contemporary singer/songwriter Michelle Shocked, and Joe Boyd (Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd, R.E.M., you name it) produces. All this extra varnishing seems to distance the listener a little from the content, which, combined with the shifting proportions of personal and political lyrics, makes "Workers Playtime" one of Bragg's less immediate works. Nevertheless there are many fine moments here, none greater than the slow-building singalong of "Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards". If not the equal of its predecessor, this is still a fine album swimming with depth, subtlety, wit, passion and commitment.
"Don't Try This At Home" cranked the ante up to eleven, with assistance from almost all of the above, plus The The bassist James Eller and half of R.E.M. Bragg responded to the challenge with perhaps his most finely-observed and consistent collection of songs yet. There's a smattering of singalong top pop hits ("Sexuality", "Accident Waiting To Happen", "You Woke Up My Neighbourhood") alongside some more reflective material. "Cindy Of A Thousand Lives" is a mysterious, almost ambient drone of an enigma, whilst "Moving The Goalposts" is his tenderest unpicking of a relationship. "Rumours Of War" examines a similar blinkered British stereotype to Morrissey's "The Lazy Sunbathers", and was later taken on board by June Tabor, whilst there's intelligent and uncharacteristic rocking out of sorts on "North Sea Bubble" and "Body Of Water". Such is the quality of the original material that a cover of Fred Neil's reliably matchless "Dolphins" falls slightly flat (no one can touch Tim Buckley's 1968 live rendition, in my humble), although Sid Griffin's "Everywhere" sounds tailor-made for the artist. And if you were only to allow one Billy Bragg album into your home, this is the one that bests considerable competition, the apotheosis of a sweetening process that successfully broadened his appeal without softening his bite.
BILLY BRAGG William Bloke (Cooking Vinyl)
1996's "William Bloke" ended a five-year recording hiatus during which Bragg concentrated his efforts on fatherhood, emerging with a subtler, less obvious record than the star-studded "Don't Try This At Home" which preceded it. Affable and committed as ever - the title says it all, really - "William Bloke" was arguably his smoothest album to date, focussing more intently on the personal than the political. There's a definite autobiographical tinge to songs like "From Red To Blue" ("You're a father now, you see things in different ways") and "Brickbat" ("I used to want to plant bombs at the Last Night of the Proms/But now you'll find me with the baby, in the bathroom"). The old vitriol remains intact, however, on "A Pict Song", a setting of a Rudyard Kipling poem, "Northern Industrial Town", probably closest in approach to his spiky older electric protest material, and the deceptively fluffy "Goalhanger", with its burping ska brass. Despite the fact that the melodies are less immediate than before, the whole album is redolent of the kind of loving care Bragg invests in all his material, still the ever-conscientious musician who would never knowingly short-change the customer.
BILLY BRAGG AND THE BLOKES England, Half English (Cooking Vinyl)
"England, Half English" is Billy Bragg's first album of new material since 1996's "William Bloke", and now he's got a band of his own to help play it: The Blokes include in their ranks Ian McLagan, once a Small Face and later a Face. In the interim he worked on two volumes of "Mermaid Avenue", putting music to previously unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics in collaboration with Wilco (the first of which grabbed all the media attention due to the shock of the new and the accompanying "Man In The Sand" documentary, the second being a far superior and criminally neglected work), and issued a few anthologies of rarities covered elsewhere in this issue.
Unfortunately, "England, Half English" isn't a great album, in fact it's probably the least great Billy Bragg platter I've yet clapped ears on. Maybe it's because, for the first time, he's writing for and with a band, but the melodies seem to have lost the suppleness that Bragg's music always possessed in spades, even in his bard of Barking days. The arrangements are further smothered in layers of exotic frippery, with The Blokes performing on (it says here!) bouzouki, barizouki, reco reco, bell, goats' toenails, saz, tarbush, resozouki, dobro, accordion, sintir, guitaron, darabouka, curdu drum, bendir, kraksh, tenorbush, quira, udu, cuban drum, shekere, contra-tambura, vega lap steel guitar, fife, bajo sexto, cabasa and cumbush. Which is all very accomplished, but if you too can remember when all you needed to perform a Billy Bragg song was an electric guitar and a flat, nasal voice all this trimming might appear unnecessary. In fact, as a rule of thumb, the success of a song on "England, Half English" is usually inversely proportional to the mass of instrumentation employed.
Opener and recent single "St. Monday" is a jaunty but ultimately unsubstantial thing about how nice a three-day weekend would be, which seems wastefully trivial compared to Bragg's usual subject matter. "Distant Shore" might have you checking the credits for a guest appearance by Elvis Costello, a measure of the blossoming maturity of Billy's singing voice, first suggested during "Mermaid Avenue". But next, on the burping title track, the mood has been shattered by what sounds like Ian Dury fronting Madness, fine artists in their own element, but not together on a Billy Bragg album, surely. "NPWA" is surely the most blatantly stadium-friendly song he's ever recorded - nothing else in his back catalogue evokes memories of "Born In The USA"-era Springsteen! - but underneath the bluster it's revealed that the title stands for "No Power Without Accountability", which calms the pulse somewhat. "Some Days I See The Point" and "He'll Go Down" are close to vintage, though, the kind of mellow, gentle ballads that hide in the corners of the "Workers Playtime" or "William Bloke" albums, gradually invading your subconscious. The calm is soon shattered by "Baby Faroukh": typifying exactly what's wrong with the album, it drips with busy, foreign instrumentation in an attempt to sound breathlessly multicultural, lyrics seemingly programmed to make the listener feel good. From Billy Bragg it just sounds like a cheap connivance, because he usually works so much harder for a reaction. "Take Down The Union Jack" is just man and guitar, sparse and "Back To Basics", but even this is undermined by sloppy lyrics - can you imagine him saying "Gilbert and George are taking the piss" three times in four lines 15 years ago? It seems lazy, and laziness is not what I expect from Billy Bragg. "England, Half English" closes with "The Tears Of My Tracks", a song that finds the author selling his record collection at a car boot, terrific subject matter that arguably deserves better music than it gets here.
So it's a disappointment, then. Which no Billy Bragg album has been before now. "England, Half English" makes all the right (on) noises and certainly fights the good fight, but there's no heart or soul underneath it all. It sounds, by turns, trivial, gimmicky and lazy. Pass, and hope he appears more invigorated next time around.
BILLY BRAGG Bloke On Bloke (Cooking Vinyl)
BILLY BRAGG Reaching To The Converted (Cooking Vinyl)
According to the booklet blurb, "Bloke On Bloke" is a "limited edition 7 track mini album" featuring "more from the William Bloke sessions". In fact, most of this brief 1997 compilation had already appeared on A or B sides of singles, whilst "Qualifications" was an unlisted bonus track on the end of the vinyl edition of "William Bloke", and Bragg's appropriately doleful cover of "Never Had No One Ever" featured on the tribute album "The Smiths Is Dead". The balance is made up by two Moodswings remixes of "Sugardaddy": Billy Bragg remixes - there's something not quite right about that phrase, isn't there?
So by rights "Bloke On Bloke" should be an undernourished slice of cheap exploitation, and should sound as rough and raggedy as its genesis suggests. And of course, being a Billy Bragg album, instead it's subtle, funny, educational, warm-hearted and brilliant. "The Boy Done Good", co-written and played with old mate Johnny Marr, is as fine as any of the man's love songs. Its omission from "William Bloke" is inexplicable (maybe there were too many football metaphors on the album already, but I'd happily take this over "Goalhanger"). The angry righteous rant "Qualifications" remains great, harkening back to his primitive early material, and "Sugardaddy" is a strong enough song to withstand being gently massaged into "Sugardaddy (Smoke Gets In Your Ears Mix)" and "Sugardubby" without breaking. "Rule Nor Reason" carries the great lines "The Queen on her throne/Plays Shirley Bassey records when she's all on her own", which is reason enough for it to be. "Bloke On Bloke"'s only disappointments are that Smiths cover (Smiths covers usually cower palely in the shadow of the mighty original versions, and this version of "Never Had No One Ever" also has to battle against a sleazy brass arrangement that seems to have leaked out of a nearby strip club) and "Thatcherites" which, lyrics apart, seems too much like the b-side fodder it actually is. Otherwise "Bloke On Bloke" is 26 minutes in the company of British popular music's compassionate conscience, and a small, good thing.
"Reaching To The Converted" is a more extensive, although not completely comprehensive, mopping-up operation, containing 17 tracks of covers, alternate versions and non-album A and B-sides recorded between 1985 and 1997. "The Boy Done Good" and "Rule Nor Reason" make slightly unnecessary, but not unwelcome, reappearances from "Bloke On Bloke", and there are new versions of "Greetings To The New Brunette" (here retitled "Shirley", with Johnny Marr on everything but the singing), "Accident Waiting To Happen" and "Wishing The Day Away" (far more mournful than the original, with Cara Tivey's balladic piano replacing the old guitar and fiddle accompaniment). There's a rich swathe of covers, including a respectful version of Anna McGarrigle's "Heart Like A Wheel", The Four Tops' "Walk Away Renee" with the lyrics dumped in favour of a sweet and touching monologue, Dick Gaughan's "Think Again", more Smiths in the form of early b-side (both for them and for him) "Jeane", The Beatles' "She's Leaving Home" (which hitched to number one on the back of Wet Wet Wet's "With A Little Help From My Friends"), and "The Tattler" (which sounds less like Ry Cooder's original than David Soul's does). There's a smattering of new Bragg work as well, which is fine at its best. "Scholarship Is The Enemy Of Romance", for example, plays like a slightly older, wiser version of "The Saturday Boy" . The acapella "I Don't Need This Pressure Ron" sums up the man's philosophy thus: "Money maketh man a Tory/Don't fire that assumption at me/I like toast as much as anyone/But not for breakfast, dinner and tea A poet with all the answers/Has never yet been built". There's a great deal of good music here, but compared to the controlled brevity of "Bloke On Bloke" the wide-ranging stylistic diversity inherent in any collection spanning 12 years of Billy Bragg's career makes "Reaching To The Converted" seem far less cohesive.
BILLY BRAGG AND THE BLOKES/THE WAIFS City Hall, Salisbury 13 March 2002
The Waifs are a quartet of ladies (two, sisters) and gentlemen from Australia, and they play a pleasant sort of acoustic rootsy country folk fusion. It's exactly the kind of music you might expect a Billy Bragg audience to lap up, and they do, treating the band to one of the warmest receptions I've yet seen for a support band. There's nothing earth shattering about what The Waifs do, but they do it so good-naturedly and with such heart that you can't help but get swept up in their performance. At times the sisters' vocal style reminded me of 10,000 Maniacs and It's Jo And Danny, enviable reference points both. And when they finish with a crackling cover of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" we're like putty in their hands. No sound of ideologies clashing, but sometimes it's almost enough to just be entertained, rather than educated as well.
Cue Billy Bragg, who of course aims to excel at both in equal measure. And the education begins long before he takes the stage, with leaflets about the Living Wage Campaign being distributed on the way into the venue, and t-shirts from Ethical Threads ("a brand of clothing and merchandise sourced from workplaces that meet international conventions on workers' rights and which are verified by free trade unions") on sale at the merchandise stall. And the tour is sponsored by the GMB (the General Municipal Boilermakers', as he explains, despite being asked not to by bods from the union). The aroma of compassion and commitment is so much not what you'd expect from a rock gig, but then again Billy Bragg is so much not what you'd expect from a rock star, whatever that much-abused phrase is supposed to mean these days. He opens the set with a deliberately obscure number, a ploy he uses to wrongfoot the numerous Billy Bragg tribute bands that are doing the rounds these days ("All you need is an electric guitar and a flat, nasal singing voice. There's one called I Was A Miner he's got a cardboard cut-out of Neil Kinnock!"). And that's the pattern for the evening, a fabulous, foreign mix of song, stand-up comedy and serious stuff.
Which makes a Billy Bragg gig an absolute pain to review, because what makes it so utterly, attractively other is his between song, well, banter is an insulting term for it, but in the gaps between the tunes he touches on punk rock, Vikings, the BNP, John Lydon versus Richard And Judy, the evil that is "Pop Stars" and about a hundred other topics. And when he's not talking he's singing: tonight the band played an unusual, eclectic mix of material from his back catalogue, much of which had been comprehensively rearranged to fit the demands of a five-piece band. There was lots from the Woody Guthrie/Wilco project "Mermaid Avenue", although sadly nothing from its far superior sequel "Mermaid Avenue Vol II". Rollicking versions of mid-period crowd-pleasers such as "Sexuality", "Accident Waiting To Happen" and "Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards" were present and correct, alongside a well-upholstered "The Warmest Room". And as if to appease the nagging doubt that these relatively lavish arrangements seemed to wrap the core qualities of Bragg's songwriting in too many layers of cotton wool, he played a few tunes completely solo, including "The Man In The Iron Mask".
What else? Percussionist Martyn Baker playing what Bragg referred to as "a mid-80s Depeche Mode rhythm track, slowed down by 50%" on an udu (the kind of shiny ceramic object you might find filled with plants and soil at a garden centre. 'Sir' Ian McLagan, the former Small Face, on keyboards. His impassioned plea for everyone in the audience - and a friend - to buy new single "Take Down The Union Jack" to elevate it into the top 10, allowing Bragg to play it live on "Top Of The Pops" during the week of the Queen's golden jubilee. But, churlish as it seems to complain, there was something missing, something that might have elevated the evening into the upper league of my gig-going experiences. Perhaps it was the setlist, which seemed to concentrate on relatively understated album material at the expense of the greatest moments of his prodigious back catalogue. Could have been the material aired from new album "England, Half English", which, almost certainly due to unfamiliarity, appeared gimmicky and underwritten. And possibly the arrangements homogenised Bragg's gradual transition from electric warrior to rootsy elder statesman, leaving all the band material sounding much of a lovingly played, brilliantly written muchness. Nevertheless, for all tonight wasn't, it was at least a darn fine gig (Bragg and Blokes were on stage for a value-packed two hours), a more-than-worthwhile evening with the most caring man in rock, a bloke for all seasons.
BILLY BRAGG AND THE BLOKES/PATTY GRIFFIN The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole 14 November 2002
At 8:05 Ms Griffin and her acoustic guitar take to the stage of the recently and radically refurbished and renamed Arts Centre, and both tiptoe delicately into a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Mansion On The Hill", and it makes for a subtly fantastic experience that outshines any distant rankle at the fact that the song's author doesn't get credited. She then moves through a brief sequence of songs from her new album, "1000 Kisses", apparently the best record Jackson Browne's heard all year, and if anything they're even finer than the sparse, harsh, "Nebraska"-era relic that opened proceedings. Her melodies are all feeling, no surface, laden with intricacies that will only catch you halfway through the song, and she could write a song about a pie factory (and does, "Making Pies") and make it twinkle. She closes this, her debut British performance, with a cover of Patsy Cline's "Tomorrow Night" that she learned from a Bob Dylan album, and 20 minutes hardly seems like enough of her spare, sensuous country-folk.
If I left my first Billy Bragg live experience with a nagging sense of doubt, a feeling that the night wasn't exactly all it could have been, tonight's performance made copious amends. Opening with a cover of Fred Neil's luminous "Dolphins" might have helped matters, especially when consolidated with a ricochet through "Accident Waiting To Happen". A slimmed down selection from his latest album, "England, Half English", reinforced my suspicions that it might be the most underwhelming of his career: the title track's culture-clash soundclash still sounds simultaneously half-baked and overcooked, and "N.P.W.A" is stadium rock sung from a socialist hymn sheet, but the foggy clarity of "Some Days I See The Point" is great, especially as Bragg revealed it to be about walking his dog on Chesil Beach. It even survived two false starts, one of which mutated implausibly into "Smoke On The Water". He performed a cover of The Faces' "Debris" which, despite not knowing the original, and given the obvious difference between the vocal techniques of Mr Bragg and old sandpaper throat, sounded uncannily like that band, undoubtedly considerably abetted by the presence of Ian McLagan on keyboards. Other fine moments included a slinky, subtle resetting of "Greetings To The New Brunette", Bragg treating the audience to a one-off performance of the song's now-excised trademark guitar riff at its close. "Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards" was present and correct as well, of course, and a fire-fighter-dedicated "There Is Power In A Union", as well as a smattering of "Mermaid Avenue" songs and a thrashy "All You Fascists" from that album's superior, overlooked sequel. But the low-point of the evening was indicative of the crisis evident in the man's recent work: recorded for a forthcoming anti-war charity album, "The Price Of Oil" finds the elegance of his songwriting lagging far behind the eloquence of his between-song lectures. And there seemed to be far fewer of those tonight, Bragg barely acknowledging the GMB poster and its "Bang up killer bosses" slogan above the stage.
But, all things considered, this was a more enjoyable evening than his/their Salisbury performance eight months earlier, possibly because of a sharpening of the setlist and a trimming of Bragg's more rhetorical tendencies. With nineteen mostly marvellous songs delivered in a near two-hour performance, it showed why the perpetual underbloke is one of our most precious national treasures, the prickly thorn of conscience in the establishment's side.
BILLY BRAGG Back To Basics (Cooking Vinyl)
Subtitled the first 21 songs from the roots of urbane folk music, this vintage compilation gathers together Billy Braggs first two long players, 1983s Lifes A Riot With Spy Vs Spy and the following years Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, and the 1985 EP Between The Wars. These short, sharp dispatches are frequently instrumented only by his unfettered electric guitar; by turns joyous, angry, tender and scratchy, its all the orchestra he needs. The sparse arrangements cement his image as akin to Guthrie or the young Dylan beamed forward through time to take up machines against the injustices of Thatchers Britain. He even nods to the latter with the title From A Vauxhall Velox, and, after swiping the opening lines of A New England from Leaves That Are Green, offered to donate the songs royalties to a charity of Paul Simons choice.
Its perhaps ironic, then, that whats especially noticeable listening to these songs 20 years after the facts is how the politics gradually seep into Braggs lyrics. Barely registering during Lifes A Riot With Spy Vs Spy, the Between The Wars EP, released during the dying moments of the miners strike, is saturated with pro-union sentiment.
Nothing here is less than great, but, again, surprisingly, its the ballads that Bragg really excels at, the meticulous unpicking of the clockwork of the human heart demonstrated on The Saturday Boy and St. Swithins Day. The former, a bittersweet recollection of a first fumbling crush from a simpler age when days were ruled and divided by school timetables and part-time jobs, remains one of his finest achievements. Its poignancy is hardly diminished by being programmed directly after The Myth Of Trust, which painfully probes the moment at which a relationship takes a fatal crumble.
Throughout this aptly titled compilation theres an economy in the presentation that ensures not a second is wasted or extraneous a minute into A New England and hes already memorably dispatched two verses and a chorus. Further obfuscating the common perception of Bragg as a purveyor of little more than hardened left-wing political folk, the universal nature of his music is underlined by the astonishing range of artists whove covered these songs. As well as rootsy types such as Kirsty McColl, The Oyster Band, Ashley Hutchings and Norma Waterson, Paul Young, Dubstar, Xmal Deutschland and, uh, Lars Frederiksen & The Bastards have all drawn inspiration from this particular well.
By rights Back To Basics should sound hideously dated and embarrassingly trite today. That age and distance only renders these songs stronger and ever more relevant is a testament to the bard of Burton Bradstocks craftsmanship.
BILLY BRAGG/SETH LAKEMAN The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 28 April 2006
Having had Seth Lakemans Mercury-nominated kitchen-recorded Kitty Jay album on heavy rotation during the last few months, I thought I was reasonably clued-up as to what to expect from him, but the vivacity and intensity of his performance was breathtaking. Fronting a four-piece band that included a double bass/banjo player and a percussionist who conjured up an orchestra of rhythm from two brushes and what looked like an upturned box (which he sat atop), Lakeman himself moved between tenor guitar (a four-stringed instrument a little smaller than the real thing) and fiddle.
Perhaps due to my front-row vantage point about as close to the stage as it was possible to get without actually being in the band Seths vocals were a bit distant and indistinct, but his musicianship was astonishing, especially when simultaneously fiddling, singing and tapping out a rhythm track with his foot, a kind of musical walk/chew gum/rub stomach/pat head conundrum. Reeling through a set of Kitty Jay favourites and a few songs from his new album, Freedom Fields, his half-hour performance was that rarity amongst support slots, one that seemed all too brief.
Brevity is not an accusation that could be levelled against your typical Billy Bragg gig. Tonight hes on stage for nearly two hours, giving plenty of time for his trademark monologues to elucidate at greater length subjects his concise, precise songs dont cover. Of course, preaching to an audience of converts hed get a round of applause for observations like Unions are good or Fascists are bad, but the inclusive warmth, factual dexterity and unassailable correctness of his rhetoric never falters, whether hes postulating that Saint George was an economic migrant, describing the Cameron nightmare (in which the Tory leader explains that he was moved to pursue a political career by Red Wedge), recalling lugging his reel-to-reel round to friends houses as a teenager under the pretext of taping Slade Alive! for the nth time whilst actually hoping to sneak home a copy of big sisters Motown Chartbusters Vol. 3, or revealing his new Johnny Clash persona, a mutation brought about by his failing vocal prowess during an American tour.
There are some songs, too; many of them, in fact, drawn almost exclusively from his first four albums, only Tank Park Salute, All You Fascists, St. Monday and England, Half English sneaking in from his post-Workers Playtime catalogue. Perhaps that might have something to do with the recent release of a box set documenting those early years: he gently plugs it at one point during the evening, reasoning that it might be his last chance to issue this music in a tactile form I dont know what an MP3 smells like! Certainly, the 1-2-3-4 of The World Turned Upside Down, Levi Stubbs Tears, There Is Power In A Union and Greetings To The New Brunette is a pretty phenomenal way to open any concert, even if the youngest of them is pushing 20 years old. For some reason Id recently been ruminating on the line from the latter Im more impressionable when my cement is wet, and what do you know but tonight Billy breaks off at exactly that point, asking Do you ever wonder about that line?!
Having seen him with The Blokes a few times and been mildly disappointed, Im delighted to report that Bragg solo is a far more enjoyable experience. On record these songs crackled and spat with little more adornment than his functional but powerful electric guitar playing; elaborate arrangements would sap them of their directness and power. Nevertheless, tonight he receives fitting mid-set accompaniment from (Small) Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, reaffirming their soulboy roots on a cover of Booker T & The M.G.s Green Onions and paying tribute to the late Ronnie Lane with The Faces sublime Debris. There are other moments of All Back To Mine-style jukebox jiving woven into the set: England, Half English opens and closes with a verse from John Barleycorn, Im Forever Blowing Bubbles seeps into Honey Im A Big Boy Now (during which Bragg forgets the words and has to be prompted by an audience member; Give him a box set, someone heckles. Hes already got one, replies a whipsmart Bragg, thats how he knows the words) and St.Monday gathers its skirt and heads for Itchycoo Park.
Proceedings dip a smidgeon when he unveils a parade of new topical songs I Keep Faith, concerning his hopes for the crushing of the BNP in the imminent local government elections, and the self-explanatory Bush War Blues presumably destined to remain as unreleased as The Price Of Oil, played during the England, Half English tours. But a storming brace of encores that included The Saturday Boy perhaps his greatest achievement as a lyricist, certainly the one song of his thats pretty much guaranteed a place on any mix tape or CD I construct in which he invites the audience to imagine the closing trumpet solo rather than be subjected to him whistling it, The Milkman Of Human Kindness and a community singalong of A New England, including the extra verse from Kirsty MacColls version, more than compensated.
Almost uniformly brilliant songs, performed as they were meant to be heard, witty and informed comment on a dazzling array of subjects, unwavering political commitment lets be honest, Primal Scream performing Swastika Eyes the night before could never really hope to hold a candle to Billy lividly living Woody Guthries words on All You Fascists tonight nudges ahead of even Januarys Wigan performance by a shockingly revitalised The Fall to be graced with my gig of the year so far crown.
BILLY BRAGG / OTIS GIBBS Park & Dare Theatre, Treorchy 22 November 2008
Tattooed and luxuriantly bearded, Otis Gibbs has the appearance for a lucrative future in a ZZ Top tribute band. His music, unsurprisingly for a Billy Bragg support artist, suggests otherwise. Americana at its most empirical, he sings about listless small town Saturday nights, riding boxcars, picket lines, unions, coalmines and the strength of the collective’s voice.
These are all admirable subjects and sentiments, of course, which inevitably connect with an appreciative audience, and he scatters warmly-delivered anecdotes and reminiscences amongst the songs. But…and it’s a big one…whilst I’m not recommending obfuscation for obfuscation’s sake, Gibbs’ songs are so basic they make the works of Richmond Fontaine sound like “Blonde On Blonde”. There’s simply nothing to chew on, pontificate about or debate; they’re just a procession of self-evident truths. He reaches some kind of nadir on a geographically-appropriate song about coal mining, which informs us that it’s not possible to determine the weather whilst working underground. Gee, thanks for that, Otis.
It’s hard to define exactly and succinctly what Otis’ songs are missing until, after Billy Bragg’s triumphant opener “The World Turned Upside Down”, my Pa, press-ganged into his first Bragg gig after being delighted to discover that my Mum experiences an even more extreme reaction to Billy’s voice than to Bob Dylan’s, turns to me and says “That’s what he’s missing!” (I haven’t the heart to point out it’s actually a cover of a Leon Rosselson song, but the point is well made.) Billy is compelling, his performance completely hooking the willing listener; Otis just isn’t.
What follows is pretty much as good a Bragg gig as I’ve ever attended, with Billy witheringly dispatching the hecklers in a good-natured but lively Saturday night crowd, and launching into long, digressionary rambles that sometimes last for several times the duration of the song they preface. Apart from a return appearance from Gibbs to duet on a lovely acoustic cover of The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Sin City”, he flies totally solo, and the extra(neous) ornamentation found on the studio recordings is never missed. During the ever-magnificent “The Saturday Boy” he invites us to imagine the closing trumpet solo, each of us lost in our own particular personal teenage reverie, only to shatter the mood with brief blasts of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” (for the under-40s) and “Smoke On The Water” (for the rest of the audience). He dedicates a cover of “A Change Is Gonna Come” to Barack Obama and “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” to the late Four Top. A new song, “Goodbye Goodbye”, is performed; it was apparently left off the end of this year’s “Mr Love & Justice” album when three people who heard preview copies asked if it signalled his retirement. “NPWA”, which always sounded a bit like clumpy stadium protest when backed by The Blokes, is shockingly topical despite being first released in 2002. It’s somewhat eclipsed, though, by a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home”, a dust bowl ballad from the original credit crunch. As is traditional, “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards” becomes the vehicle for some ripped-from-the-headlines knockabout satire. He also runs through a crowd-pleasing series of songs from what most would probably acknowledge as his golden age first decade, spanning “The Milkman Of Human Kindness” to “Sexuality”: not to suggest that he’s some kind of nostalgia act, but he’s not ashamed of giving the people what they want. Well, up to a point: repeated calls for “A New England” go unheeded, save for the response “It’s alright for you, you’ve only got to remember the title!” And of course there are the “dumb-ass five minute raps” that precede many of the songs: from the BNP to the Clash, Billy’s got an opinion and he’s not shy about sharing it, just another vital aspect that distances a Billy Bragg concert from the norm, and rewards the effort of attendance in ways just sitting at home spending the evening spinning his records never could.
Commitment, passion, people power, Marmite t-shirts (“I’m your quintessential Marmite act”, he explains of the distinctive, yeast extract-related logo that adorns this season’s Bragg leisurewear, “You either love me or you fucking hate me!”), tea (he throws the contents of his mug over the adoring audience at the show’s climax), this production has it all. Which is fortuitous as, three nights later…
BILLY BRAGG / OTIS GIBBS The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 25 November 2008
…we’re all back together again. Looking somewhat lost on the Bridgewater Hall’s vast, symphony-sized stage, Otis is definitely in more impressive form than on our previous encounter. Perhaps it’s because he’s ditched that coal mining song that affronted my sensibilities so much, but his case is also furthered by the inclusion of a few more upbeat, energetic tunes in his set and increased audience participation. The anecdotes are the same, though. His songs don’t seem so simplistic second time around, and he’s generously received. I wouldn’t go to see him on his own, but he’s definitely growing on me.
Billy’s rejigged his setlist since Saturday, so there’s no “The Saturday Boy” (boo! Hiss!), “Ingrid Bergman” (usefully meaning the loss of the interminable spoken introduction that went with it) or “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key”, and “The World Turned Upside Down” is shifted to mid-set. A fabulous opening “This Guitar Says Sorry” now carries those White Stripes and Deep Purple quotes, there’s another new (or at least non-album) song in “Old Clash Fan Fight Song” and, joy of joys, “A New England” is back. His monologues have been fine-tuned to keep abreast of current events, so there’s a little bit about the budget in there, and there’s no heckling! Hardly surprising that a Tuesday night Bridgewater Hall audience is less restive than a Saturday night Treorchy crowd, though, I suppose. Perhaps it’s also not much of a shock that tonight lacks the intimacy of that previous show, not that Billy’s set to some kind of corporate enormodome autopilot, but there’s a definite mismatch between content and environment that I don’t think I would have picked up on had I not seen him in smaller, shabbier surroundings so recently.
Nevertheless, there’s something of a local coup when Billy’s joined by local hero Badly Drawn Boy, for an encore performance of “Walk Away Renee (Version)”, a song Mr Gough claims was the first he learned to play on the guitar. A musically slight collaboration, perhaps, but still an endearing example of the kind of delightful surprise that can happen at a Billy Bragg gig.
BILLY BRAGG / OTIS GIBBS Alban Arena, St Albans 28 November 2008
Tonight we arrive at the tail-end of Otis’ set, but of the two numbers we hear one is new, a seasonal meditation on Christmas grumpiness, and from what we see it’s another well-received performance.
Billy works to the same setlist as the Manchester gig, with the obvious exception of the Badly Drawn Boy-assisted “Walk Away Renee (Version)”. Nevertheless, the presentation is subtly varied. Perhaps because this is a standing venue he wanders around the stage a lot more, instead of appearing rooted behind the microphone as he was in Manchester and Treorchy. The patter’s very similar, although his anecdote about visiting an 80s disco in Sheffield (the punchline being that, as he enters, the music suddenly stops dead – like in a saloon in the old west when something bad and bloody is about to happen – and the DJ yells at him “No, Bragg, not that kind of 80s!”) has grown references to The Wedding Present and The Smiths, and there’s a new skit concerning a Battle of Naseby-style vanquishing of Tony Hadley and his tour entourage. Perhaps surprisingly, his raps and rants are better received here in leafy Hertfordshire than at Manchester or Treorchy – but then again, you’d expect a Billy Bragg audience to be self-selecting. As on previous visits to the Alban Arena the sound was brilliant, emphasising the fact that Billy really doesn’t need a band to get his terrific music – and his plentiful opinions - across.
ANDREW COLLINS Still Suitable For Miners: Billy Bragg (Virgin)
Chronicling the life of Stephen William Bragg is turning into something of a lifetime obsession for writer (duh!) and broadcaster Andrew Collins. “Still Suitable For Miners” has evolved through three editions over the last decade, from the first bearing a foreword from the subject himself. If that implies that Collins has written some toothless hagiography, think, as the song says, again. Admittedly, having been granted access to the mountain of minutiae that is the Bragg archive, Collins is perhaps understandably deft in his handling of the more sensitive moments of the story. Nevertheless, he renders his subject’s life as an almost indecently readable chronicle of decency, catapulting the tale forward with his obvious and commendable enthusiasm. A master in something of a minor field of study, perhaps, “Still Suitable For Miners” nevertheless deserves to be regarded as definitive…at least until its fourth edition.
BILLY BRAGG Workmen’s Hall, Blaenavon 5 June 2009
Possibly the biggest thing to hit Blaenavon since World Heritage Site status, this was the first night of Billy’s “tour to mark the anniversary of the miners’ strike 1984-85”, a commemorative itinerary that wound its way through nine Welsh shows in celebration of the country’s “culture of progressive resistance”. Tonight, somewhat reminiscent of Mark Everett’s selection of a BBC4 documentary charting his quest to uncover the truth about his scientist father for an Eels support act, Billy supported himself, in the form of a live interview with eloquent, if hardly probing, interlocutor David Williams, a former BBC Wales political editor. What might’ve been a narcissistic gesture from…well, from just about anybody else in popular music – it’s the kind of stunt it’s not too difficult to imagine Bono pulling – made for a fascinating precursor given Billy’s track record as a go-to Radio 4 commentator, “Any Questions?” panellist and Guardian columnist. The topics covered inevitably included the current expenses-related cabinet collapse, the miners’ strike and Billy’s oft-celebrated eureka moment at the 1978 Rock Against Racism festival, a topic he later suggested Williams rather skirted around. (Perhaps he’s not a huge fan of The Clash.)
Billy followed that with a predictably fantastic set, performing solo for a respectfully attentive, mainly grey-haired or balding audience in a venue that, although perhaps not designed expressly with electric protest folk in mind, ensured every word could be heard. Much, even down to the between-song raps and anecdotes, was familiar from his last tour (during which I had the good fortune to see him three times in a week) which is not to say it wasn’t a delight to hear it all again. He barely had to drop in a reference to the Fees Office to make opener “Ideology” sound freshly minted, rather than something he released in 1986. Similarly, “To Have And To Have Not” offered a sly sideways glance at the acquisitive, “getting away with it” culture that might perhaps prompt our elected representatives to push to the very edges of the expenses envelope. Contributions from his most recent album, the disappointingly toothless “Mr Love & Justice”, were squeezed down to just a single song, his audience-inclusive vow of solidarity “I Keep Faith”, but “Ingrid Bergman” was still prefaced by a rambling explanation of Woody Guthrie’s gift for double entendre.
Classic after classic tumbled out of a 90-minute set that included “Greetings To The New Brunette”, “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”, “There Is Power In A Union”, “Between The Wars”, “Which Side Are You On”, Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home”, “The Milkman Of Human Kindness” and “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards”, during which he could be forgiven for forgetting the words multiple times on the grounds that they seem to change every time he plays it anyway. The highlight was, at a pinch, “The Saturday Boy”, not for its “Seven Nation Army” and “Smoke On The Water” quotes, nor for the self-deprecating yet piercing awareness of the mindset of a typical Bragg fan he demonstrates by suggesting that audience research has shown that we can hear the trumpet solo in our heads, but because it’s possibly the best song he’s ever written.
BILLY BRAGG / PATRICK JONES /THE KEYS Grand Pavilion, Porthcawl 6 June 2009
So good was Billy, in fact, that the next night found us loyal followers in the more salubrious, if torrential, environs of Porthcawl, where there were not one but two support acts. In place of the advertised Lily Green was a gentleman from Neath who introduced himself as one-fifth of The Keys. Despite their painfully Google-unfriendly name I’ve since discovered that The Keys were formed from the remains of Murray The Hump, although I haven’t determined whether the fellow in the John Deere cap and plaid shirt, lending him the demeanour of a Welsh Kurt Wagner, was vocalist/guitarist Matthew Evans or guitarist/vocalist Gwion Rowlands. His pleasant, gently pointed acoustic songs had an air of Teenage Fanclub about them, which is never terrible, and neither was he, but never totally eradicated the lingering suspicion of a paucity of real content.
Patrick Jones, on the other hand, lives or dies by his content. This was probably the first time I’d seen live poetry – well, the second if John Cooper Clarke counts, come to think of it – and Jones, whose multitasking CV includes directing Manic Street Preachers videos, delivered with theatrical gusto on several topics pertinent to this tour, even including an Idris Davies cover. His performance wasn’t exactly my cup of Horlicks, but I can imagine many in the audience being impressed.
Right from the off, Billy seemed in a more combative, assertive mood tonight, perhaps a pre-emptive strike against a potentially rowdy Saturday night Porthcawl crowd. Although noisier and much more prone to participation than last night’s audience, the only real troublemaker was a gentleman in the front row who attracted the attention of the venue’s apparently powerless security staff by yelling “Billy Bragg!” whenever he’d gathered sufficient presence of mind to do so. The addition of “Little Time Bomb”, “A Lover Sings” (hurrah!) and “O Freedom” extended the set by 15 minutes over the previous night’s.
Was Billy great? Unquestionably, yes. Better than the night before? Well, it was different, complementary, but I’d find it impossible to pick one performance over another. Billy’s such an interactive performer that it’s worth seeing him in different environments to appreciate the true range of his talents, making two Billy Bragg gigs in a row absolutely worth the effort involved.
BILLY BRAGG / BRIANNA CORRIGAN Academy 2, Manchester 12 March 2011
In the words of the mighty Fall, it’s a case of right place, wrong time tonight as my gig buddy’s attempts to grapple with altered bus timetables and desire for a drink beforehand means that Billy’s already on stage and powering through “To Have And To Have Not” by the time we arrive at (the right part of, fortunately) 53 Degrees. Fortunately this well-designed room has probably the best sightlines of any standing venue I know, and it’s still possible to make out what’s going on from way in the back, especially beneficial as Bragg’s touring budget is unlikely ever to stretch to video screens.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Billy’s got a lot to say about recent political developments, both the ultimately successful drive to unseat the BNP from his Barking hometown and his less effective attempt at tactical voting in the general election to keep the Conservatives away from power. He’s also turned his thoughts into song, perhaps acknowledging the somewhat ephemeral nature of the subject matter by writing “The Ballad Of Barking” and “Tomorrow’s Going To Be A Better Day” for a play, “Pressure Drop”, based on his book exploring the nature of contemporary Englishness “The Progressive Patriot”. Such ripped-from-the-headlines topicality might seem like fish ‘n’ chip paper by the time of his next album proper, so you can perhaps see his point,
Excepting those new songs, and “I Keep Faith” and “NPWA” (still somewhat heavy-handed, although sadly not diminishing in relevance with time) the evening’s musical content is a reassuring nostalgiafest, drawing on the back pages when he was unequivocally fresh and vital. “The Saturday Boy”, with its whistle-your-own-trumpet-solo karaoke opportunity, remains one of the most realistic love songs ever written, and Billy declares that, Fascism reference aside, “Accident Waiting To Happen” could’ve been written about Nick Clegg.
All very sweet and dandy, the evening’s a testament to the apparently limitless possibilities of a voice, a guitar and ideas. If he doesn’t seem to be on the form of his life tonight, maybe it’s due to perception problems on my part, what with all the arriving late and standing at the back. Far more caring and sharing than yer average rock star, he calls for security support when somebody faints near the front (hysteria at a Billy Bragg gig, whodathunk?) and, at the close, throws the dregs of his mug of Throat Coat tea to the crowd.
BILLY BRAGG / BRIANNA CORRIGAN Academy 2, Manchester 12 March 2011
Seeing Brianna Corrigan’s name on the evening’s running order has me mentally asking myself the question “Didn’t she used to be in The Beautiful South?” It takes only a few seconds’ exposure to her keening Celtic pipes to confirm it, but she doesn’t play anything by or refer to her old band. Instead she sings her own, naggingly non-specific songs of lurve, save for one which she introduces as a cover and another inspired by the unsolved murder of an infant American beauty princess. Whatever the intent, though, the result is more standard issue female singer-songwriting, not greatly enhanced by an additional acoustic guitarist, whose occasional harmonies never ever threaten to break into Beautiful South-style boy/girl vocal sparring. She quotes Kofi Annan, the Dalai Lama and Einstein, which is not the kind of thing you hear every day, but everything and anything else about her set could easily have been.
Billy, though…well, he kinda shows up last night’s Seth Lakeman gig for the non-committal washout that it was, what with all the Passion and Commitment seeping from Mr Bragg’s every pore. As is traditional, he pinballs through his greatest hits with a few more recent token topical songs thrown in – the same ones, in fact, he was playing during his tour last December. Once again, the only tunes from his last decade or so of album activity are “I Keep Faith” and “NPWA”, the latter as much of a cod-rock clodhopper as ever it was but sadly never more relevant. Oh, and he leads one verse of “John Barleycorn” into “England, Half English”. Of the old stuff, well, it’s take your pick time really, with the highlights of many being a Saturday night singalong encore of “A New England”, the imagine-your-own-trumpet-solo version of “The Saturday Boy”, still for my money one of the best, most realistic love songs The Blue Nile never recorded, a heartfelt and moving “Tank Park Salute” and “Everywhere”, which I don’t think I even realised was a cover until he credited it to Sid Griffin tonight. So, just another great Billy Bragg gig then, not to suggest for a second that the evening was plagued with anything approaching complacency; he’s even, gradually, refreshing his stock of between-song raps and anecdotes. In fact, the only downer was the fact that the back of a sold-out Academy 2 is not a particularly pleasant place to be irrespective of who’s on stage, due to the constant churn of people either going to or returning from the bar.