A rainy night in Islington is the setting for this second appearance by Billy Bragg at the elegant Assembly Hall. This has been billed as the Bridges Not Walls Tour – and there’s a new EP of the same name with a set of commentaries on today’s political situation. It’s a delayed reaction to Brexit and the election of Trump. Delayed, as Billy Bragg ruefully acknowledges, because whilst the world was being turned upside down he was out on tour singing songs about trains with a more and more depressed Joe Henry, and thinking long and hard about skiffle for his recent book. Anyone who caught parts of the Shine a Light tour will already know that both musicians were well aware of having the “wrong” new album to promote. It’s all about timing.
And whilst there will be politics, there is always room in Billy Bragg’s life for love – romantic love or something more robustly physical as in the opening song Sexuality – a song which on its release back in 1991 was able to ruffle a few moral feathers and now seems joyfully innocuous, in the very best way. “I demand equality” now seems like a statement of the obvious, not a line challenging society’s mores – and that is political progress. There will, after all, always be politics. That blend of romance and politics continues into The Warmest Room, made even more beautiful when C.J. Hillman adds weeping pedal steel. And there’s more pedal steel on Woody Guthrie’s She Came Along to Me, a song introduced with a few words about Woody and how songs like this are still relevant today, ending with the quip “it’s almost like we didn’t solve these problems by singing songs about them”. This is a running theme of the between song discourses – Billy Bragg has already long distanced himself from the political effectivity of badges, now he wants to make it clear that songs can fuel change only if they fuel activism. It is this thought that led to the new songs – on the train songs tour Bragg had found a release through Facebook “rants”, but examining bullet pointed jotted notes for one such reminded him of how he used to write songs like this. Punchy, direct and full of double meanings. The Sleep of Reason is in this classic Billy Bragg mould – alone on stage with hard chords belted out from a fuzzy electric guitar the monsters that the Sleep of Reason produces are at all levels “Lies ride in style on a big red bus / whilst you walk into town / and surrogates keep their cap locks on / to shout each other down”. It’s not them, potentially it’s all of us. There is hope though – the swingingly soulful Saffiyah Smiles is an appreciation of Saffiyah Khan who stood up to “angry white men dressed like Elmer Fudd”, and “bold as love with a smile took power from the man”. This is, as Bragg sings, “what solidarity looks like”.
When Billy Bragg wears his heart on his sleeve he does it unreservedly – The Man in the Iron Mask is an emotionally painful acceptance of betrayal, Must I paint you a Picture? is an outpouring of love, and The Milkman of Human Kindness is the same with a cheeky wink that a roomful of men of Bragg’s age are happy to sing along to. Just as they are willing to proclaim “the Union forever / defending our rights / down with the blackleg / all workers unite” on the rousing set closer. The encore is a powerful blend of the serious and the self-deprecating. Full English Brexit has Billy Bragg challenging the listener to show empathy for the leave voter – it’s not righteous anger at their unwillingness to accept the future that the majority of the country’s younger voters wanted, nor dismissing them with the racist label that will change opinions. It captures, in a dirge, conflicting opinions and logical contradictions and a clinging to the past. A past that seems to be on its way back, as the English new Dylan borrows from the original on The Times They Are a Changin’ – Back which offers an ironic spin on a future glimpsed through the lens of the inauguration of Donald Trump. It’d be funny if it wasn’t true. Waiting for the Great Leap Forward – much modified for these changing Internet times – is amusingly self deprecating and takes the time to articulate mixed feelings of worth when “mixing pop and politics / he asks me what the point is / I offer him embarrassment / and my usual excuses”. It’s a release from the seriousness – but of course is still serious “you can be active with the activists / or sleep in with the sleepers”. The evening’s final song, A New England, is a cathartic release.
And exiting the building, buoyed up by wise words and great songs, kicking the way through the usual sea of plastic beer glasses it’s a surprise to see a copy of the Telegraph on the floor. Who, after all, brings the Torygraph to a Billy Bragg concert? But if Bragg is accused (and he is) of preaching to the choir here at least is the evidence of an opinion changed, the paper dropped and trampled under foot.
The Warmest Room
She Came Along to Me
The Sleep of Reason
The Man in the Iron Mask
Accident Waiting to Happen
Must I Paint You a Picture?
Levi Stubbs’ Tears
King Tide and The Sunny Day Flood
Greetings to the New Brunette
Why We Build the Wall
The Milkman of Human Kindness
I Keep Faith
There Is Power in a Union
Full English Brexit
The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Back
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
A New England