2nd May 2008
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’.
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
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.
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