It’s odd what brings people to gigs. If it hadn’t been for RTM’s hatred of socialising we might not have seen Billy Bragg in the first place. We had just started a new job in November 1999 and were desperate to get out of the works Christmas do the following month. It happened to coincide with a Billy gig at Warwick Arts Centre, so we went with a mate and a love of the Bard of Barking began.
We were musing on this tonight as support Kim Churchill tells the story about why he ended up here. He was at a folk festival in Canada and asked someone for a lift to the stage, that someone was one Stephen William Bragg, who obliged and asked him to come out on tour.
The New South Wales Folkie is a worthy – and welcome – addition. The young singer/songwriter is doing this type of thing with a really interesting twist. He sings a song called “Smile As He Goes Home” which is about his Grandad’s funeral, but is celebratory and heartwarming, this mixes with “Bathed In Black” which is psychedelic and heavy. He ends all this with a take on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” this, like the rest of his set, is well worth checking out.
So Billy Bragg then. What is left to say about him? It is thirty years this year since his incendiary debut mini album “Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy” came out, and throughout that career he has done everything with an honesty and a sense of humour that sets him apart from the crowd.
RTM saw him back in June when he gave a brilliant show in Stratford – Upon - Avon. He is exactly the same tonight, and indeed seems totally re-invigorated by the “Tooth And Nail” album he released earlier this year. Apparently recorded in a matter of days in America with hot Producer Joe Henry, it is not only the best record he has put out in years and years, but has taken Bragg – and his fine band – into something of a country vein. In typical fashion, he bats this away with self-deprecation, claiming he has turned into a “radical Kenny Rodgers, “ and plays “You Woke The Neighbourhood” from his 1991 “Don’t Try This At Home” album as if to prove he has always been country anyway.
The set is broadly the same as the one a few months ago, but does include “California Stars” which is touchingly dedicated to Wilco’s Jay Bennett, who sadly died two years ago and “A New England” returns to end things.
Bragg jokes that it doesn’t matter what songs he plays, because over 30 years people don’t come to listen to sing anyway. Whilst those who don’t know his work might focus on his politics (no bad thing and RTM remains in agreement with most of his manifesto) this neglects the fact that he is fabulous songwriter – one of the finest this country has ever had – who is capable of writing a visceral “Never Buy The Sun” but juxtaposing this with a quite brilliant “Handyman Blues,” a tale of why men shouldn’t attempt DIY.
During the course of his two and a quarter hours onstage Bragg tells us that he isn’t bothered about the 30 year anniversary, but what is worth celebrating, he says, is that fact that after all this time a room full of people in Birmingham still want to watch him.
If he surprised, he needn’t be. He is Billy Bragg and he deserves all the audience he ever gets.