An evening with Billy Bragg, and if not quite yet live in person this live-streamed event (with 30 days of return viewing) is as close as it gets right now to that elusive live experience. In fact, in some ways, it offers more than that experience might – because the usually solo touring Billy Bragg was backed by a full band. And, what is more, he was previewing songs from his new album ‘The Million Things that Never Happened‘ which were getting not only a first live outing but a first outing with the band.
It’s a band with half of the Magic Numbers (Romeo Stodart and Michele Stodart) at its core alongside Darren Beckett on drums and multi-instrumentalist Nick Pynn adding fiddle, lap steel, dulcimer, and more. Bragg’s son Jack Valerio also put in an appearance on a few songs. This offered a richer sound than Billy on his usual solo progress from gig to gig, although it means he has – as he explains – musicians to keep up with, and a son who post-gig reminds him of every fluffed note. Heart-breaking. On the other hand there’s also the unusual sound of a female backing singer, which injects a new vibrancy to familiar songs, and there was definitely an Americana touch to many of the arrangements.
Among the new songs was ‘Should Have Seen It Coming‘, which sounds uncannily like Dylan from the Eighties – in his more acoustic mode. It’s a song for all occasions – pandemics, a fourth Tory government, the UK invoking Article 50 or a love fading away – whatever foreseeable disaster fits the bill. The new album is a pandemic one – that’s going to go without saying for at least another year – and there are familiar feelings of time passing unacknowledged on the new song ‘Pass it on‘ which was prompted by looking through old photographs and pondering, as the song says, that the “voices are silent but memories live on.”
Jack Valerio had a hand in another new song, ‘10 Mysterious Photographs That Can’t Be Explained‘, adding a middle eight to the song which reshaped a half verse into a full-blown chorus. As Bragg admitted, it makes the song – which was something of a necessary corrective to a gloom-filled opening – better. Catchy and upbeat, with Nick Pynn’s fiddle lifting it skyward, this is one that’s going to go down a storm live when Bragg gets back on stage. Songs about the Internet (and mobile phones….and since we’re listing them one’s own children and one’s dog) are notoriously difficult to make interesting, but you can rely on Billy Bragg – there’s home truths about information overload, click-bait, the lack of common sense and the pointlessness of arguing with the trolls. And there’s the album’s title track which relates a sense of loss from the deeply trivial to the deeply emotional. It was, suitably, taken at a funereal pace, regretting how socialising became a furtive meet-up after dark, or didn’t happen at all. How Christmas passed-by in the same fog as the days surrounding it and mourned all the weddings un-held, the births unwitnessed, the last dying words unheard. Nick Pynn’s echoey fiddle was again a key element, adding an even more spectral air to the song.
Which is not to say that there was an absence of older material – there’s an affecting piano-led ‘Moving the Goalposts‘ with Bragg sticking to just the vocals – similarly though it seems perfect for these days we’re existing in, shot through as it is with melancholy and yearning.
With Bragg announcing that “Now, for your delight, we’re going to take a trip down Mermaid Avenue” there was an impassioned ‘Way Over Yonder‘ from his collaboration with Wilco, setting Woody Guthrie lyrics to new tunes. Here it became a duet with Michele Stodart, a true contrast of voices. Perhaps the most effective moment of the whole gig was a slow and reflective ‘Dolphins‘, which benefited from a touch of dulcimer, segueing directly into a gloriously raucous Psychedelic Garage Rock tinged “Cindy of a Thousand Lives” which saw Bragg heading for ‘Liege and Lief‘ era Fairport Convention – or even ‘Warrior on the edge of Time‘ era Hawkwind. Words I never thought I’d write.
Amongst various pieces of inter-song chat there’s a comment from Bragg that the gig has been a particularly good experience for someone who is used to playing live a lot – and better than some of the early attempts at live streams. And it’s true – they’d got the camera work pretty much perfect, and it really had a feel of being only inches away from a sweaty mid-size venue somewhere in the sticks. The hour or so closed out with a full rocking ‘Accident Waiting To Happen‘ which was good enough to get up and bounce round to in an uncoordinated fashion. It’s “goodbye and good luck” indeed. God though – but you’d want to see this line-up really live.
As an encore there was a Bragg solo on clanging electric guitar version of ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears‘ and then a finale, accompanied only by Romeo on a piano version of another new song ‘Ocean.‘ It’s a downbeat conclusion to a gig that has perhaps emphasized not hopelessness exactly but a feeling that there’s a lot to overcome and acknowledges that these have not been the best of times. An honest manifesto then.
As a bonus, alongside the rewatch access to the gig and the encore there are a number of videos including background on the making of the album, a couple of general question and answer sessions on “songwriting” and “everything else” as well as a longer interview with Billy and Romeo by Ted Clements.
And it’s still not too late to sign up for a listen, just go to watch.stabal.com.
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