Billy Bragg tours and plays gigs, a lot. We’ve missed him this last couple of years and evidently he’s missed us too. He tells us about his lockdown, how he’s missed gigging and his ongoing anxieties about the pandemic with its lingering potential for disruption of the last few gigs of the tour. So far so 2021. Within the first couple of monologues he has managed to parlay his experiences of pandemic Britain into a passionate espousal of his perspective on the difficulties of reconciling a belief in both individual liberty and the common good… a bang up to date Billy Bragg gig then, everything is new yet everything is the same.
Right there we have the perfect encapsulation of what William Bloke has always been about, the lucid deconstruction of ideologies, dodgy political shenanigans and everyday personal relationships. Followed by the engaging and winning amalgamation of these ideas into rousing tunes delivered with a finely crafted metaphor, a poetically prosaic turn of phrase and some righteously clanging guitar.
The focus of words written about Bragg is often more on the words written by Bragg than the music that accompanies them. This is not surprising given the ratio of talking to singing that makes up the gig, and tonight is not untypical in that regard. It’s not a good idea to put a percentage on talk v music but in the canon of Bragg live performance it’s probably about average, in relation to gigs as a whole though it’s definitely high in favour of the oratory, as he notes in new song ‘Mid Century Modern’, he’s used to being listened to… but more of that in a moment.
Nobody minds the talk, it’s why some of us are actually here and what we all expect. Offered up with a lovely warm and self-deprecating representation, we get personal stories about 5 largely unread Bobby Moore biographies, his own intricate safe word issues, the heckle about hits that stunned him to silence and who he would want to sing his back pages a la Astley and Blossoms doing the Smiths.
We also get a lot of references to age, the eighties and old-style Billy Bragg fans who have remained loyal to their man. Occasionally all this can start to feel like we have slipped into our favourite comfortable old armchair, where we can spend time reliving our glory days and shaking our raised fist at the world without fear of putting our back out. This is as much a reflection of the nature of the audience he has carried with him over the years as it is to do with Bragg’s ability to rouse a crowd and is absolutely not some kind of acquiescence to the passing of time. He remains a flawless reflector of our concerns, sensibilities and flash points, he gets what makes us angry, happy, sad, and enthused and is able to play this back to us in a way that entertains and still sounds vital and enervating.
What burns bright throughout the show is that he has lost none of his passion for music and its power to heal, to placate and to renew. He is eloquent and moving in his espousal of the song’s ability to connect with us, to say what we feel but can’t communicate, giving a voice to those of us who don’t have the words. The eloquence of his stories is matched by nearly two hours of songs old and new doing just that. A few of the highlights include ‘A Lover Sings’, which remains as perfect an encapsulation of the fragility, timidity, bewilderment and resignation of that naïve love/sex thing as it’s possible to imagine. A clanging and bitter sweet version of ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ that felt so vital it sounded like he’d only just written it and ‘Power in a Union’, which is just as collectively powerful as it’s always been.
He also lives up to his rep’ for updating the lyrics to earlier classics, so in ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’, Fidel’s brother now warns the weeping rich lady that “two degrees is just around the corner” and, in one of his finest revisions yet, the joyous inclusivity of ‘Sexuality’ now suggests that “If you stick around, I think we can find the right pronoun” – big cheer. New words don’t stop the sing-alongs though and it remains the real oldies that get the crowd on board the most. It must be weird for the smattering of millennials in attendance to experience 1,000 plus 50 and 60 somethings tunelessly claiming to be ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’ and offering to leave an extra pint.
This is no nostalgia fest though. Equally vital and central to the set are the songs from Bragg’s latest LP. These in particular benefited from the understated and perfectly attuned keyboards of former AMAUK instrumentalist of the year Thomas Collison. Among them are title track ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’ that speaks touchingly of the sense of loss people experienced during their Covid related isolations, ‘Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained’ co-written (sort of) with son Jack and the majestic late career highlight ‘Mid Century Modern’. This finely tuned and highly relatable song wonderfully articulates the personal confusion and uncertainty faced by men of a certain age (mid-century modern geezers) when negotiating the younger generation’s arena of modern issues, particular those of gender identity. ‘The gap between the man I think I am and the man I want to be’ is something we’ve all experienced and whilst I’ll still find my own confusion, discomfort and guilt mirrored in the song’s protagonist’s world view I’m also comfortable that Bragg has set the picture straight for me and other muddled ‘Boomers’, leaving us with no doubt as to which side we should be on…
And this sees the modern Bloke, doing his job, exactly as he describes it, re-energising his audience to send us away with a positive feeling and a renewed passion for activism. To get us excited anew about the possibilities of taking up the cudgel and ‘doing something’. If he’s not as provocative and raw as he was, if the anger is slightly less righteous, we can forgive him. His more nuanced and thoughtful take on prescient issues seems right for the times and right for us, his audience.
As we concluded in our review of his livestream from September this year, what we get, as always, from Bragg is an “honest manifesto”. We can go a touch further than that here though, it’s honest certainly but it also remains touching, familiar and energising. Not a bad trick for the old Bloke to pull off. Job done then.