Billy Bragg is out on his “1-step forward, 2-steps back” tour which sees him hit a town for a three night stand – a gig with his current mixed set, a gig drawing solely on his first three albums and a third gig taking its material from his fourth through sixth albums. Last week was London, this week Cambridge – it’s a great idea, which is quite obviously popular with the long term fans as the three night tickets sold out pretty quickly, meaning that a lot of those who’ve made this first rainy Tuesday night will be back again tomorrow and the day after.
It’s a tour that’s a crowd pleaser; it’s also a tour that has found itself taking place right in the middle of an Election – although that’s something that would have been true every few months for the last three years: suddenly we’re the kind of country where self-interest fixated governments don’t govern, big decisions get put off, and where the public sector has taken a kicking for the last nine years with no real end in sight if the same party retains power. This is exactly the kind of situation that might be expected to draw some comment from Billy Bragg – who back in 2016 and 2017 found himself touring an album of train songs, not the perfect platform to build a political analysis on.
So, here in the rammed full Junction 1, is just one man on that peculiarly triangular stage – there’s no support, but there is a handful of guitars. With no fuss there’s a launch straight into the body politic with ‘Sexuality’, with its message of inclusivity and acceptance: “If you stick around I’m sure that we can find some common ground” sounding ever more urgent in these fractured times. However, the working together message of ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ – and again with an insistence on equality and freedom – comes with a sting. Sure, Bragg acknowledges that brutality swept The Diggers aside, but remember “still the vision lingers on.” So the final message is really “You poor take courage, You rich take care” – for there’s a power in organised protest, and that’s a topic that may well arise again.
Bragg is no Dylan when it comes to stage craft – loquacious is the word, and ever ready with a quick put down when good natured heckling lasts too long. So ‘King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood’ got a lengthy introduction explaining how even a one man band touring has an effect on Climate Change – whilst the song calls out a too little too late attitude, that small changes just aren’t going to make the change: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could save the world an’ all simply by collecting up tin cans and empty bottles“. And equally, Bragg isn’t fooled by his heroes as he demonstrated on a mini-set within a set – he may sing ‘All You Fascists’ with alacrity, but there’s no overlooking Woody Guthrie’s “earthier” side: the rock hard volcano about to explode in ‘Ingrid Bergman‘ is, Billy Bragg feels, more metaphorical than geological and even ‘Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key’ could hide an innuendo or two. This would be a gig notable for its number of non-Bragg originals, although it’s easy to see why Alanis Morissette’s ‘Why we build the Wall’ has taken up pretty much permanent residency in the set list.
Fortunately those first six albums reserved for nights two and three were allowed a slight outing on this regular set night – it would have been too much not to have had the likes of ‘Valentines Day is Over’ or the sing-a-long heartbreak of ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’. ‘Handyman’s Blues’ is a more or less contented love song, not the rock and roll passion of youth but befitting a man sporting a non-hipster beard (it being pointed out that it can’t be a hipster beard – because it’s grey), but there’s still room for some youthful passion – albeit of the political kind – in a much changed ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards’ which calls out our very own liar in chief and the call, in this case to get out and vote, of ‘There is Power in a Union’.
The encore was a pairing of realism and a hint of optimism – which is to say the unpleasant truths encapsulated in Bragg’s version of a Dylan song: ‘The Times they are a Changin’ – Back’ which sees how progress in society is at risk of rolling in the wrong direction. The optimism comes from the traditional closer ‘New England’ – in which, let’s be honest, we would most assuredly settle for a New England, rather than some rose-tinted attempt to reclaim the past.
And if three gigs in Cambridge were not enough, Billy Bragg also supported the Cambridge Defend Education rally the next day, there’s a full video of that here .