In the wake of Brexit and Trump we need more “empathy, less cynicism and more solidarity.” That’s the take-home message from Billy Bragg at a packed to the gills Tramshed in Cardiff tonight.
Well, that’s the shorthand version anyway, because over two hours between a warm-hearted, playful, potted trip through his back catalogue he treats us to an inspiring talk on topics as diverse and far-ranging as skiffle, Lonnie Donegan, washboards, trains, Iceland, braised puffin, penguins, walrus, air routes, Portland OR, hipster beards never having grey in them. Woody Guthrie, Marjorie Guthrie, David Attenborough, Fascists, immigration, political songs inevitably becoming topical again, Gannon, football, World Cup qualifying, Trump, Corbyn, and Goya. Also the venue’s noisy air conditioning that he thinks sounds like Moz from the John Lewis Christmas advert might be creeping up behind him, climate change, flooding, barriers, hydration, aging bladders, someone in the audience fainting (and maybe he shouldn’t have asked for the noisy air con to be turned off, after all, and could it go back on again please).
Opening the show with one of his biggest hits ‘Sexuality’ that Billy Bragg dedicates to ‘all our trans brothers and sisters’, it’s a cracking pop song with perhaps some of the best and wittiest sing-a-long rhyming for a top twenty hit I can remember. (“Safe sex doesn’t mean no sex it just means use your imagination/Stop playing with yourselves in hard currency hotels/I look like Robert De Niro, I drive a Mitsubishi Zero”).
For the brilliant ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’, his bearded right-hand guitarist fills in for Johnny Marr’s on his trademark guitar jangling parts, this bittersweet song about the nascent trepidatious steps of a new relationship finds the crowd singing ‘SHIRLEY!’ in unison mockney, at the start of every verse.
“People don’t come to see you to hear you sing, Bill,” is something Billy Bragg recalls his old tour manager telling him back in his early days before a gig, as he introduces a heartfelt version of one of my favourites ‘Must I Paint You A Picture’ his worn voice snuggly fitting the song’s shrugging and sighing melody. Now he’s got us on his own, as he puts it, he cracks out the trademark Telecaster to sketch out some of his classic arsenal of songs, the sincerity and compassion of ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’ illicit arms aloft sing-a-long. While the mournful vocal and the frantic metallic guitar salvos of ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ sounds as vital as it did upon release in 1986.
As he strikes up the anthemic workers call-to-arms – “There’s power in the union” – the guy in front of me surprisingly seems shocked at the content of the lyrics, maybe he’s walked into the wrong gig? Ed Sheeran is playing here next year, sir. A fearsome version of ‘An Accident Waiting to Happen’ is dedicated to President Trump’s timebomb, Twitter rant-fuelled presidency. While a tender version of ‘Moving the Goalposts’ is a tale of awkward teenage fumblings and unrequited love offers itself as an undeniable gem.
“Music can’t change the world, and God knows I’ve been trying for thirty years. But you can!” he offers in an empowering moment as he praised the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn during the general election fuelled by young people. He then offers a plea for less cynicism in difficult times because that’s what the right wing wants to drown out the hope of those who want change, before playing a more recent cut ‘I Keep Faith’, an almost gospel-like reaffirmation in his belief in the essential goodness of people and their ability to change the world if they only believed in it.
Back to Brexit and Billy Bragg thinks it could end up back where we were in the customs union such is the mess that the Tory government are making of it and the inability to get a “good deal” (if such a thing even exists). He has sympathy for the frustrations of those who voted leave in 2016, who think their country is no longer their own because of immigration, but he thinks that their frustration is about something deeper, low wages, the cuts to public services and falling living standards. Scrapping Trident and spending the money on the NHS might be a start, he suggests. “Grey-haired blokes like us need to be behind young activists over the next decade,” he quips before playing ‘Full English Brexit’ from his new Build Bridges Not Walls mini album; a song whose main protagonist details the contradictions, lies and the clinging to a fading British identity that are all tied up with leaving the EU.
After a rapturous reception, he returns for a three-song encore beginning with an amusing take on the ‘Times They Are A-Changin’ called the ‘Times They Are A-Changin’ Back’ – its choruses crammed with punchlines at the expense of Boris, Trump and Brexit. While the rousing, skipping brilliance of ‘Waiting for The Great Leap Forward’ comes complete with updated lyrics, which add a certain jeopardy to attempting to sing alone. Thus the “fanzine writers” are now “podcasters” always after an interview and the revolution is now amusingly “an ethically produced tea towel away” how middle class. Reassuringly though Billy is still “mixing pop and politics” and “wondering what the use is”.
Rounding off the night with perhaps his trademark song ‘A New England’ its chiming guitars decorated with a longing for a promise unfulfilled, it comes with the extra verse dedicated to and written for Kirsty MacColl (who also had a hit with her excellent version of the song) is greeted with a sing-a-long of its heart-bursting chorus. And with that its all over and we spill out into the winter’s November night our hearts swelling with song and our souls stirred with hope. Billy Bragg is now in his sixtieth year, he’s one of us, he keeps the faith as an enduring songwriter and activist, and whilst he can sure talk for (a new) England, most of all he’s a bloody good bloke.