The other night I went to hear a political dissertation, and a concert broke out. That is one way to describe a Billy Bragg show, but it certainly would pay a disservice to his splendid musical talents. Mr. Bragg’s politics are no secret. His views are so far left he makes Steve Earle seem like a Republican. However, he is one helluva fine singer-songwriter. To this end, he fronted a top-notch country-flavored band delivering an engaging two-hour set to his faithful at the intimate, sold out Belcourt.
Bragg’s latest effort, Tooth & Nail, was produced by fellow artist and award-winning producer Joe Henry. Together, they created a record with enough pedal steel and mandolin to make it fit easily under the Americana label. Mr. Bragg acknowledged this fact just before he and the band tore into “You Woke up My Neighborhood.” He declared this song as “evidence from 20 years ago” that this style wasn’t something unfamiliar to him.
Mid-set, Bragg briefly returned to his more familiar folkie self with some songs featuring just him and his guitar. In doing so, he commented how he usually finds his records in the “Folk” section right after Paul Brady. To this, a woman in the audience asked him in which section he would like to find himself. He replied that he wanted to deliver songs passionately enough to put him in the “Soul” section. This was a perfect lead-in to his tender rendering of “Levi Stubb’s Tears,” a song in which Bragg name-checks The Four Tops’ late great lead singer.
Bragg sure has a lot to say during a show, most of which is political in nature. Some of it, though, is just downright humorous. A case in point was the tale of his surprising delight in a recent comical meeting with the Queen of England. (“Her picture has been on every bit of money that’s ever been in my pocket!”) As for his political rants, even an out-of-place conservative like me respects his opinions since they are intelligently based on passion.
Politically speaking, it was an eventful day to see Mr. Bragg on the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. At the post show meet and greet, he mentioned why he was wearing a red shirt. It was in support of the day’s silent protest to the late British prime minister whose policies served as fodder for many of his protest songs.
As expected, Bragg’s set included songs by his musical/political mentor Woody Guthrie. One of them led to telling us about how he spent time today with Nashville’s Ken Coomer. Bragg worked with the former Wilco drummer when Bragg and that band recorded two Mermaid Avenue LPs. The LPs consisted of songs they crafted from unused Guthrie lyrics.
The evening closed strong as Bragg performed the touching tribute to his late dad, “Tank Park Salute” and his best known number, the hoping-the-world-will-change anthem, “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards.” I generally tend to support a shut up and sing attitude towards pontificating artists. However, I’ll give Bragg a pass since not only is his career firmly established upon a political platform, his method of delivery is just so darn witty, clever and entertaining.
- No One Knows Nothing Anymore
- Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key
- Do Unto Others
- All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose (Woody Guthrie cover)
- I Ain’t Got No Home (Woody Guthrie cover)
- You Woke Up My Neighborhood
- The Milkman of Human Kindness
- To Have and To Have Not
- Levi Stubbs’ Tears
- My Flying Saucer (Woody Guthrie cover)
- Chasing Rainbows
- Over You
- Valentine’s Day
- There Will Be A Reckoning
- The Space Race is Over
- Handyman Blues
- Tank Park Salute
- Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
Billy Bragg – electric and acoustic guitars and vocals
CJ Hillman – guitar, pedal steel and dobro
Luke Bullen – drums
Owen Parker – keyboards, mandolin and backing vocals
Matt Round – standup and electric bass