This, it must be said, is a fantastic venue for a gig. RTM hasn’t been here for about 25 years – then our teenage selves were more concerned with messing about with the binoculars than we were with actually watching “Romeo And Juliet”, but now, as (definitely) older and (hopefully) wiser, we find ourselves with a quite stunning view of proceedings.
Possibly Wes Finch was a touch overawed too by it all too. Because he seems just a little timid during his opening numbers, with “Pinch of Salt” in particular, you feel, having the potential to be a decent melancholy folk song, but lacking something.
Then midway through his 45 minute set, something happens. He plays a gritty, bluesy, Robert Johnson cover and all of a sudden he’s off and running. “Ring On The Riverbed” is a tale of lost love and “The Punchline” is likewise, a fine song. You can almost see the confidence flooding through him and Finch’s set is one that ended up way better than it started.
If Billy Bragg has ever lacked confidence he’s never shown it in all the times RTM has seen him. And – backed with a band for more than half two hours he’s on stage tonight – he is pretty unstoppable.
This jaunt (tonight at the RSC is the first date on his UK tour) is in support of his new recprds “Tooth and Nail”. In RTM’s opinion it is a real return to form after the patchy “England Half English” and “Mr Love And Justice” albums that he’s put out in the last decade. That is reflected in tonight’s performance, which sees around half of it played. Bragg hasn’t sounded this good – or appeared this energised - in years.
Beginning with one of his political numbers in “Ideology” he is soon aplogising to the bard for his grammar in the track “No One Knows Nothing Anymore” by track three is playing one his many Woody Guthrie songs in “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key” – and that in a nutshell is Bragg summed up. No one else can shift so effortlessly or so well between different styles, from singer/songwriter to Folk to Rock to almost punk, so easily well and no one can do political songs and shift to love songs quite so skillfully.
There are those who think that Bragg has gone soft in his older age and that he doesn’t write scathing attacks on the right wing political beliefs anymore. He plays “Between The Wars” (dedicated to Margaret Thatcher) and as if to prove he has still got the fire, he follows it up with his condemnation of the modern tabloid press “Never Buy The Sun.”
More than anything, though, tonight is a fun gig with a real warmth at its heart. Encoring with the lead track from “…Nail” “Handyman Blues” a tale of his hopelessness at DIY (which contains the fabulous line “I know you think I’m just reading the paper/But these ideas I will turn to goldust later” ) before singing off with the classic “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards” this really has been a night to remind yourself that Bragg is still absolutely, totally relvant.
Like the tea towel (no, really) he is selling in the foyer says, Bragg is marmite. You love him or hate him. Of course, we are in the former camp. And to paraphrase his most famous song (one which is not played tonight) Bragg doesn’t want to change the world, he’s just looking for a better England – and entertaining while he does it. And he is superb tonight.