March 13, 2008

Billy's back with all guns blazing

I may have missed the opening 20 minutes - because I was watching the mighty Arsenal humiliate AC Milan in their own backyard (sorry Billy) - but it took nothing away from a stonking night all round for north London, thanks to a cracking set from the pride of Essex, Billy Bragg.

It was about my 20th Bragg concert and some 25 years since I first saw him at the Captain's Cabin off Haymarket, but he has lost none of his spark or fire. In fact, this was the best I have seen him play since the halcyon days of the ubiquitous GLC benefits and his annual New Year's Eve shows at the Hackney Empire.

It was helped, of course, by the delightful surprise of an encore that was the whole of his debut album, Life's A Riot, including a riotous climax of A New England, that brought the memories flooding back as almost the whole arena sung along word for word in unison. And the best thing about it was that you could tell that Barking-born Billy loved it as much as those of us in the audience, with a big grin on his face as he played songs that have not had an airing for many a year.

As he put it: "Some bands, like Echo and the Bunnymen, need the Albert Hall and an orchestra to play one of their old albums. I'll just do it as an encore on my guitar."

Before that, he had trodden the difficult path of mixing old favourites with new material with aplomb, with current single I'll Keep The Faith fitting in well among earlier gems World Turned Upside Down, Must I Paint You a Picture, Days Like These, Sexuality and a rare, but brilliant, Between The Wars. There were also cover versions, from The Buzzcocks' Ever Fallen In love to Glenn Campbell.

It was also the first time for about 15 years that I have seen him without a band or any form of accompaniment (not even long-time cohorts Wiggy or Hank Wangford) and it was nice to see he has lost none of his strength or power as a solo artist.

It also allows him even more freedom to amuse, entertain and inform the crowd with his views on anything and everything from the indignity of ageing to the continued threat of fascism and the British National Party, taking time out to namecheck the Recorder-backed Love Music Hate Racism Carnival at Victoria Park, Hackney on Sunday, April 27.

The set finished with an impassioned There Is Power In A Union and a plea for everyone to attend the carnival and vote against the BNP in the London Assembly elections on May 1, followed by the usual closer, Waiting for The Great Leap Forwards, complete with its traditionally updated lyrics - even if they were a bit similar to the last time I saw him in 2006.

So to the treat of that encore and what a treat it was. And he still finishes with the immortal words: "My name's Billy Bragg, I'm from Barking, Essex", just as he always did.

You can't keep a good man down.

Barking and Dagenham Recorder


Anonymous said...

I've just recently got into Billy Bragg. The bloke is aces. I saw him perform one of his old songs on BBC 1-2 months ago. Was the first time I heard a Billy Bragg song - the dog's bollocks.

Anonymous said...

I went to the gig, and he did not name check "the recorder backed" gig at Victoria Park.

Like many musicins, Billy does not support the LMHR campaign as it has had a habit of ripping off musicians.

Billy is backing the original inheriters of the mantle, who backed by by the Daily Mirror, are doing a genuine Rock Against Racism gig at Brixton Academy on April 30th.