Into Live Music Review: Billy Bragg
Date: 28 November 2023
Once, was after a gig at the Barrowland Ballroom in the mid 1980s, when I said hello to him post gig at the merchandise table. The other time was in Leeds in 2002, when he was signing copies in HMV of his England Half English album, and I decided to skip a meeting at work nearby to see the great man.
I was wearing a three-piece suit that day, and when I eventually got to the signing table he looked up at me and said to himself “Bloody hell Billy, you must be selling out, you’re attracting a yuppie audience these days”
So we go way back. Thankfully, judging by the crowd at the Usher Hall Edinburgh gig, he needn’t have worried about his audience demographic!
This Bragg tour is celebrating 40 years of Braggism, which began when he released his debut album Life’s a Riot with Spy v Spy in 1983. To help jog our memories – Bragg had curated a 40 minute film that was shown on the large video screen on stage showcasing a video diary of gigs, interviews, studion recordings and important social events from 1983 -2023 ( the footage of the miners’ strike in 1984-1985, and Bragg playing in East Germany in 1987 were particularly impactful).
It was fantastic- receiving rapturous applause from the audience at its conclusion. Not sure why more artists don’t do something similar when they are doing “ career retrospective” tours?
At 8.40pm Bragg took to the stage. The first song of any gig is important, setting the tone for what’s ahead. Bragg played The Wolf Covers Its Tracks, just him and his guitar delivering a protest song. It was mournful rather than angry, and all the more powerful for it. Angry came next with The World Turned Upside Down, an old folk song Bragg has re-visited over the years, with lyrics that are possibly more relevant today than ever before.
You poor take courage, you rich take care
This Earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share All things in common, all people one
We come in peace – the orders came, to cut them down
Bragg then brought on CJ Hillman ( pedal steel guitar) and JJ Stoney ( keyboards) to join him. This added a real feeling of country soul to this part of the gig, with Bragg going through some of his less political and very poignant songs. ( or as he calls it, his “yellow period”)
Special mention should be given to Way Down Yonder In The Minor Key, a song based on un-recorded Woody Guthrie lyrics, originally recorded by Bragg & Wilco, and She’s Got A New Spell – both beautiful songs, significantly enhanced by CJ Hillman’s stunning pedal steel guitar playing.
At the end of this section Bragg then played solo again, knocking out a couple of his greatest hits with gusto. Sexuality was fun, including some adapted lyrics that gave Morrissey a less than complimentary name check.
This chart hit was followed by Levi Stubbs Tears which I would argue, is one of the finest songs ever written about domestic violence, “And though they stitched her back together, they left her heart in pieces on the floor”.
Bragg then doubled-down on our emotions by playing Tank Park Salute, a song he wrote when he was 18, shortly after his father passed away, and for many years a song he couldn’t play live as it upset him too much. – is one of many memorable lines, and of course I had shed a tear before the song ended.
Along with the tunes, you always get a few anecdotes at a Bragg gig. Tonight, he recalled when, back in the day, he once travelled from a residency at the Edinburgh Festival to play a music festival in Penzance that Meatloaf was headlining. His performance went fine, however it turned out that the promoter was bankrupt and no-one got paid except Bragg and the legend Chuck Berry (who were both paid in cash before they played !)
Bragg also didn’t shy away from more serious topics. His comment that “Johnson should be in jail” for the Covid pandemic tragedy was well-received, as were his own thoughts on the issue of Transgender rights, which he argued is as important an issue now as the Gay rights campaign was in the 1970s & 1980’s.
The average age of tonight’s crowd was probably north of 50, and there were some people obviously uncomfortable with the Trans subject matter ( two older men behind me left the gig at this point) – however Bragg was unrepentant, even when at the same time he admitted it’s a struggle for him to fully understand the nuances within the debate.
Then it was back to what Bragg does best, perform songs with passion, empathy and humour in abundance. Greetings From The New Brunette always puts a smile on my face, especially when he asks his girlfriend Shirley “How can you lie there and think of England when you don’t even know who’s in the team.” The socialist rallying call of Power In The Union, even managed to create a crowd singalong, never easy in the Usher Hall on a wet Tuesday night! And, with Hillman & Stoney having re-joined him, they scampered through the classic Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards. A few bow’s and thank you’s and they were gone.
Bragg’s encores are usually pretty special, and tonight was no different. He re-appeared for the encore solo, and proceeded to play the whole of his Life’s a Riot 1983 debut album, all 18 minutes of it. Straight through, with no in-between song chat ( not an easy thing for Bragg to do). The songs sounded as fresh as ever, and Bragg was clearly having a ball. He finished the evening off just before 11pm with New England, dedicated to Kirsty McColl, who had a Top 10 chart hit with the song in 1985 – and for good measure Bragg sang the extra verse he wrote for her too!
The world, and its issues, have changed a lot, during the 40 years that Bragg has been releasing music and performing live.
However, Bragg hasn’t changed. He’s just grown older (and maybe just a little wiser). And when I meet him for a third time , I might even dig out my old three-piece suit.