It was really nice to not be subject to the full-body cavity search (ok, I am exaggerating a little bit) that has, in the past, been a requisite to entry to shows at the Town Hall; and to walk into the foyer like a human being instead of feeling herded like cattle in a Temple Grandin facility. The simplicity of just showing our tickets to the ushers who then showed us to our seats was, frankly, refreshing – and we did so in time to catch the tail end of the highly entertaining Lindon Puffin support act.
And without much further ado, Billy Bragg wandered on stage with little fanfare or fuss picked up his acoustic guitar and took a seat on stage and spent the next hour regaling us with his stories and songs of Woodie Guthrie. As part of the celebrations of the 100th year anniversary of the Dustbowl Troubadour’s birth; Bragg is performing Guthrie songs – from the Mermaid Avenue project. I admit to at first being worried that this first half of the show might run a bit dry – but Bragg effortlessly waylaid those fears; the hour flew by, interpolated with wry and amusing stories; Bragg set Guthrie lyrics to his own music; explaining that whilst incredibly prolific as a songwriter he couldn’t write or read music so the original tunes for these songs that were never recorded by Guthrie was lost forever. Bragg recalled, though, that Guthrie had famously said that if you could play more than two chords you were just showing off – suggesting, then, that perhaps he was, in fact, the originator of punk. He played Guthrie’s love-song to Ingrid Bergman relishing in the double entendres and then the more sobering ode to racist lynch mobs Hangknot, Slipknot and the beautiful ballad to his wife Go Down To he Water which Bragg set to the tune of the Irish traditional She Moved Through The Fair – which was deeply moving, before culminating on his recollection that Guthrie was not a hero of his because he wrote This Land Is Your Land but because he wrote All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose which Bragg busted out with passionate gusto.
A short fifteen minute intermission passes quickly, and Bragg returns to the stage, seat removed and acoustic replaced with electric guitar and opened the “Billy Bragg half” with To Have And Have Not – and like the first part of the show, the concert was as much about his between song chats and observations as it was about the songs. A personal highlight and truly inspiring observation about cynicism being the true enemy of making the world the better place in which I / we want to live in proceeded Tomorrow Is Going To Be A Better Day .
Then, of course, along with other Bragg hits, Greetings To The New Brunette and Milkman For Human Kindness followed by Levi Stubbs’ Tears. I had to take a deep breath in order to not join the namesake with my own tears – such a raw and beautiful song about the power of music for people. Nothing is black and white though, as Bragg later explains that music does not , in of itself, have the power to change anything – but, he observes, it does have the power to unite people and inspire them to make changes – recalling how, aged in his late teens attending a Rock Against Racism concert helped to define the man he is today.
He closed his set in dedication to the people fighting the good fight to raise the minimum wage with an amazing rendition of There Is Power In A Union – and was appreciated with a standing ovation.
He returned for a short encore – Tank Park Salute and finally with the Town Hall audience in chorus singing A New England – replete with the additional verse dedicated to the late Kirsty MacColl.
Music in itself cannot change the world, because that is up to us, and it’s occupants to do – but music like this that rallies us and reminds us that we have to be the changes we want to see and we don’t have to accept every fucking injustice in the world because it’s too big for us – if we organise and come together, there really is power in a union.
- review by Andrew Tidball