Concert Review: Billy Bragg

Photo by Murdo McLeod

Photo by Murdo McLeod

By Gerard Martin

Artist: Billy Bragg

Date / Venue: Thursday November 22nd, 2018 - Hollywood Theatre, Auckland

Most of its downstairs pews were removed from Avondale’s old-style Hollywood Cinema to provide room for an audience of around 350. I was here on the Wednesday for the first of a ‘Three in a row retrospective show.’

Billy Bragg was back where he started, and though this was the smallest Auckland venue I’d seen him play, he was in front of a capacity crowd, slightly nervous and larger-than-life, with two guitars and a guitar tech to keep him on track.  

It’s over 30 years since Billy Bragg first visited New Zealand, slotting into the university touring circuit like it was purpose-built for him. Then, vinyl dominated music sales and Bragg’s LPs blared across student radio and appeared in New Zealand’s top ten before they had troubled the UK charts. A mutual affection formed on the 1987 tour, between the big-nosed bard and one-man Clash from Barking, Essex, and New Zealand, that has kept him returning ever since.  

Bragg played in front of some of those who were there on that first tour, cheering when he mentioned the university towns he had played. Some things have changed.  Bragg (61 in December) and many of his audience are now either grey-haired or close to it, he’s more likely to be heard on National Radio than student stations, and he’s now a successful author with two of the best books inspired by music that you’ll find anywhere.  

First song on the play list was the soothing A Lover Sings, from his Brewing Up album of 1984. For many of those gathered however, Bragg is akin to the modern-day UK version of the legendary American folkie of the 1940s and 50s, Woody Guthrie. The raucous All You Fascists, from Mermaid Avenue was the second up, showcasing how Bragg has become an interpreter of other’s songs, as much as a singer of his own.

Mermaid Avenue is the three-album set of previously unrecorded Guthrie songs that Bragg, along with US band, Wilco, wrote music for and released in the late 1990s, that gave Bragg’s career a new direction.  

While known for humour befitting a stand-up, and covering topics like politics (including Brexit), from climate change to racism, some of the night’s highlights were unexpected and sobering for anyone that simply wanted a night of nostalgia.   

The chilling, Hang Knot Slip Knot, featured in the first half hour. The song is drawn from Guthrie’s upbringing in small-town Oklahoma at a time when lynching – including some Bragg tells us involved Guthrie’s father – was still common.

Equally, a terrific and still relevant Between the Wars, first released during the UK Miners strikes of 1984-85 that first politicised Bragg, provided something familiar, after his moving rendition of Thomas Hardy poem, The Man He Killed, which Bragg had put to music.  

Bragg admirably took on what he called ‘the war on empathy’ next, as he provided his take on US songwriter, Anais Mitchell’s Why We Build the Wall, that mocked Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall on the US/Mexican border; ‘Poverty is the enemy – the wall keeps out the enemy and we build the wall to keep us free.’

Directly after, likely ironically, Bragg played the sugary sweet, Milkman of Human Kindness, from 1983’s Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy, which was a return to familiar territory. Neither for the first nor the last time, the crowd lustily sang the chorus.  

To further lighten the way, Bragg teased us to pick for him either one of an un-named Jackson 5 or Bob Dylan number. Both acts once part of his busker’s repertoire.  Maybe hoping for Blame it on the Boogie, as I was, the groan across the theatre was one of those ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ moments as he launched into the weepie I’ll be There.  He then made hard work of the song’s lower notes and got a laugh when he acknowledged his poor busker’s skills, ‘I just played what I liked,’ before seguing into his melancholy, Motown name-dropper, Levi Stubbs Tears.  

It was another cheery sing-along through Greetings to the New Brunette next, before a return to the Telecaster to appease a yell from one wag of, ‘So, what’s your book about?’   This was enough for Bragg to change tack and introduce his book, Roots Radicals and Rockers, literally a forensic social history of skiffle, the UK-based, guitar-led roots music of the 1950s.  

Just one song from his latest album, Shine a Light, a collaboration with US singer/songwriter, Joe Henry, was next; Lead Belly’s oft-covered, Midnight Special, a staple for any skiffler.  

A few moments were spared to mark the passing, just a day earlier, of UK folkie, Roy Bailey, with the resonant and Bragg-like, The World Turned Upside Down, co-written by Bailey in the mid-1970s and in the Bragg set list since 1985. Then a return to Life’s A Riot was next with To Have and to Have Not, and I Keep Faith from 2008’s Mr Love and Justice, before the crowd pleaser, The Great Leap Forward and an always storming, There is Power in a Union.   

Dylan surreptitiously featured again with Bragg’s use of The Times They are a Changing (Back) with a new batch of lyrics before the somewhat milder, Handyman Blues, more a tribute to his dad than a comment on Bragg’s lack of DIY skills, which incongruously rounded out the first encore, leaving some of his better recent hits un-played – the tremendous anti-Murdock, (Scousers) Never Buy the Sun and Nobody Knows Nothing Anymore, that for me, and others that called for them, were the only disappointments.

After two hours, the night ended almost where it began with A New England from that first EP. None of us needed any encouragement to fill in the chorus and pretty much everything else, including the additional verse written by Bragg with the late Kirsty MacColl, who had popularised the song. Bragg’s quip, “It’s like I’ve never been away…” through the last chorus, the euphoric and long anticipated Wednesday night at the Hollywood, seemed more than justified.