Post started Thursday 20 Nov 2008 - delayed by work and health!
I could cheat on reviewing Billy Bragg in Nottingham by just saying 'what he said' and pointing you to Swiss Toni's spot-on review of the night.
But that would be a cop-out wouldn't it?
I've actually only seen Billy perform twice, and only one of those was an actual gig. The first time was at an anti-war demo in Hyde Park in 1991: with his charming self-deprecation he announced that they hadn't been given a music licence, but that was okay because his performance wouldn't count as music. Then proceeded to sing out the wonderful 'Tender Comrade' which echoed across the breadth of Hyde Park as we stumbled, reluctantly, to the waiting coaches back to Wolverhampton.
I next saw him only later that same year, when with the backing band he ended a raucous night with a cover of Dee-Lite's "Groove is in the Heart". I know: madness. But somehow it worked. [I also fondly remember the day as when I took my final exam for my A204 OU course -- after the exam I ceremoniously tore down my revision schedule poster to the turned-up-to-11 volume of "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward".]
So, as a non-festival attendee, I'd been a good while between Billy experiences. And in truth given how wiped I am by work I was hardly woo-hoo excited. It had been on the radar for months but we hadn't got round to booking. This didn't help make me feel I could drag myself out. But, bless him, Cloud pulled things round and demanded that we go. Once there of course it was brilliant.
Otis Gibbs provided charming support - a kind of Indiana version of BB - though I was less than impressed by the constant chattering behind me which (in my terribly British way) I just seethed about and ignored.
Thankfully when the main man appeared most of the chattering stopped*. And from first raucous guitar strum to the throw of his tea-bag, we were captivated. With such an extensive back catalogue to pick from there's a great mix of recent and older stuff to enjoy. I was particularly delighted to get "Accident Waiting to Happen" and even though excitement got the better of BB and his vocal power, there was usually enough energy and enthusiasm to carry the songs from the audience. I especially loved the audience not just singing along to "Sexuality" but also adding in a perfect replica of the Kirsty MacColl descant echo ("weighed dow-n" "informat-ion") which sparked a "you've been practising!" from Mr Billy.
A raconteur as much as a songster, any BB performance is always going to be a rallying call to action and an anecdote-laden engagement with the crowd. "What about those BNP c***s?!" yelled one; "Quite" replied Billy, "what you said". Despite attempts to moderate language ("my mum listens to the bootlegs!") there was little chance of him not using some appropriately excoriating language to describe the actions of the BNP and Red Watch for getting some come-uppance about releasing names and addresses [something they've been more than happy to do against left-leaners like BB).
Additional thoughts Sunday 23 Nov
Listening this weekend to some of his back catalogue, Bragg certainly has a knack for writing both sharply observant 'love sings' as well as his social commentary and more political pieces. But what is beautiful about his approach is that he brings the same passion to both types of song. He remains his own man and I for one am grateful he's around.
Even though I don't like Marmite, I love Billy Bragg.
*though the latter part of the gig did produce two yaddering middle-aged blokes behind me who would not shut up -- I couldn't take any more and between songs went over to tell them to 'please shut up: why do you come to a gig and talk? All I can hear is your chattering through the songs' to which their reply was 'at least we're talking sense'. Right. THOSE sort of BB gig attendees, the sort who you wonder if they're actually listening and get what's being sung...