Billy Bragg

Royal Philharmonic Hall
2nd May 2008

Reviewed by Tom Calderbank

This was a great gig on a lovely night. A mix of sunshine and showers brought us a huge rainbow. As metaphors go, it was more apt than most, for this was a night for lovers, dreamers and fighters for a better world; a night for those who adore the big nosed bard from Barking whose vocal and guitar stylings practically redefine the term ‘acquired taste’; a night, in short, for Mr Love and Justice.

Firstly, it was the turn of the quirky and wonderful Wallis Bird to provide support. Shame the hall was half-empty (or is that half-full?) for this original Irish singer songwriter. Resplendent in her ‘granny chic’, she made the most of this second Liverpool gig, giving a good account of herself despite her declared nerves. Her acoustic/grungy tunes were lovely, from the angry out-of-love song ‘Moonsets’ to the beautiful lost love melancholy of ‘You Are Mine’. In particular, ‘The Circle’ showed off her vocal range and fancy string pluckin’. Her confidence and rapport with the audience is the mark of a great performer, and belied her twenty-four years. She can also curse like a Dublin docker. ‘Just Keep Going’ and ‘Blossoms In The Rain’ shone brightly, and when she popped a string on one of her maaaaaany guitars, she referenced it in the song. Dead feckin’ professional, tha’. At times, she had a scatty, Cleo Laine style, and her joke will live long in the memory of my kids: “What did 0 say to 8? Nice belt!” Wallis is a real prospect and deserves your ears’ attention. If there’s any justice in the world, she’ll be number 1 all over the feckin’ world, yea’?.

And so, to Billy, looking every inch the man in black. Last time I had the pleasure of his company, it was during an interview he gave to Roy Basnett at City Talk, atop St John’s Beacon. He was in town on the latest leg of his Jail Guitar Doors project, designed to mark the fifth anniversary of the passing of Joe Strummer, to bring guitars and do songwriting workshops to jails up and down the land. He was as funny, erudite and heartfelt as always, and as I listened to his thoughts on crime and punishment and supporting West Ham (often one and the same thing), it struck me once again what a true beacon of hope the man is.

‘The Blokes’, his band, weren’t with him tonight; with his two amps and a mixture of acoustic and electric guitars, tonight was pure, unadulterated Bragg.

He’s come a long way since his debut album ‘Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy’, and tonight, his superb choice of songs covers every aspect of his back catalogue. He opened with the Digger’s Song, moved on to ‘Which Side Are You On?’. His banter between songs is almost better than the set itself; he’d been to investigate Williamson’s Tunnels, and expressed his rage at the election of Boris Johnson and the rise once again of the blue tide. His suggestion that Boris Johnson be Mayor of Liverpool instead of London elicited much mirth. Instead of the counsel of despair, he exhorted us all to “warm the cockles of our hearts, brothers and sisters”, before launching into ‘Farmboy’, the first track tonight from his new album ‘Mr Love and Justice’. The special edition (which is lavishly produced, by the way, boasting gorgeous design and artwork) has two versions of the new material, band and solo. This is a shrewd move, as many long time fans will doubtless prefer the solo approach we know so well.

He mused on who on earth would possibly sponsor him; as a serial Marmite abuser, there could only be one answer. He’s dead on, coz like Marmite, you either love him or…

Then he went into ‘The Short Answer’ from ‘Worker’s Playtime’, my favourite album by him. He covered a Woody Guthrie song from his ‘Mermaid Avenue’ project, attempting to rescue Woody’s reputation as an iconoclast, rather than the simplistic dust bowl icon he’s known as.

‘Mr Love and Justice’ to which I wanted to reply: “we do too, Billy; we do too”.

‘Sexuality’ drew a huge singalong and big applause. He then told us all about Delia Brady Jacobs and Big House, trying to bring some much needed rehabilitation to the prisoners of Walton nick. One of the highlights of the show was the song written by one of the prisoners in response to a diktat from the Justice ministry banning copied CDs. The song, ‘April Fool’s Day’ was fabulous; Chorus: “We’re all happy in here/Such a great atmosphere/We don’t swear never no way/And the food is okay/Thanks for letting me stay/Happy April Fool’s Day”. Billy had performed it at a jail up in Edinburgh, it had gone down a storm, and they promised to add another verse. It could well become the ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ for the UK, and is surely the first time a song written by someone in Walton prison’s been performed in The Phil? ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’ presaged a meditation on one of Billy’s favourite topics: Englishness. With the BNP back on the rise, and intolerance threatening our fundamental way of life, Billy called for us all to manifest our shared ideals in a positive way, through the establishment of a Bill of Rights. That means rights for all, he argued; that Muslim women should have the right to wear the niqab, but they should also allow Salman Rushdie the right to write what he wants. Fittingly for someone who had just stood up tall and proud for prisoners’ rights, he noted that two thirds of any Bill of Rights deals with people in custody, habeus corpus and trial by jury, the very things that underpin our freedom. This led naturally to new song ‘O Freedom (What Liberties Are Taken In Thy Name)’. The next song began, and while I was working out what it was, I welled up. It was, of course, ‘Tank Park Salute’, the moving tribute to his late dad from the album ‘Don’t Try This At Home’. By the end, I was silently sobbing, as always. Anyone who has lost a parent will profoundly connect with this song: “Kiss me goodnight and say my prayers/Leave the light on at the top of the stairs/Tell me the names of the stars up in the sky/A tree taps on the window pane/That feeling smothers me again/Daddy is it true that we all have to die”. My tears were followed appropriately by ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’. Marvellous.

A brief ‘Pinball Wizard’ in a Johnny Cash style led to the raucous ‘Old Clash Fan Fight Song’, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the gig that changed his life and led directly to him being here with us tonight: Rock Against Racism. He made the point that it’s not singer songwriters who change the world: “after all, who’d want to live in James Blunt’s world, even if you are beautiful?” WE are the ones who change the world, we the audience. And our battle must always be with our own cynicism. Even if we don’t have faith in ourselves sometimes, Billy does. Faith in humanity, neighbours, family, you. To prove and underscore it, he played a new torch song ‘I Keep Faith’.

Then we were on the home stretch with an old classic dedicated to the city of Liverpool, ‘There Is Power In A Union’. While all his mates in London were crying into their ale over the resurgent Tories, he was here with us having his batteries recharged and faith renewed. He thanked us, said goodbye, then launched into a reworked version of the stomping ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’. The crowd, as they say, went wild. Standing ovation, no problem. He then threw his teabag into the audience – how rock and roll is that? Whoever caught that will, er, have a well-used teabag.

Of course, he had to bow to our demands for an encore, and came back with ‘The Milkman Of Human Kindness’ which the entire Phil helped him out on. Again, from the start of his career to the present day, he launched into ‘Sing Their Souls Back Home’, a hymn for the homeless, the dispossessed and the soldiers overseas to return home. Finally, it was time for a mass singalong. How many times he must have played this during his career who knows, but it’s so fresh it’s startling. Invoking the spirit of the much lamented Kirsty McColl, ‘New England’ brought the house down.

Being nearly fifty hasn’t dampened his passion for his craft and performance, and as he says, the chances of him taking early retirement are remote in the extreme, thankfully.

Incidentally, it has to be the first time I’ve ever come home from a gig with a tea-towel (bearing the legend ‘I KEEP FAITH’) as a piece of official merchandise. Beautiful and practical – Billy Bragg all over. In the end, we made our ways into the night with our cockles warmed and our batteries recharged.

Boris may have taken the capital, but Billy, he took the Capital of Culture!

Blessed Be, Billy B.

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Comment left by Sid Bonkers on 19th June, 2008 at 22:39
Er, the venue's called Philharmonic Hall, or Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. It's not Royal - unlike the orchestra that play there

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