BILLY BRAGG @ THE TROUBADOUR
Photos by Stephanie Port Words by Madison Desler
“The annoying thing about being a political songwriter is, the songs you wrote 30 years ago become topical again,” Billy Bragg explained to a packed-in crowd at The Troubadour. “It’s almost as if we didn’t solve anything just by singing about it.”
Over the last three decades, Bragg has become England’s foremost musical agitator, combining Woody Guthrie folk and the punk rock of The Clash to create his own chapter in the story of politically-minded music. For those who haven’t guessed it already, Bragg leans heavily left, a relentless supporter of human rights that will talk about his disdain for Tories and fascists until he can’t anymore. In fact, that’s exactly what happened. After a spectacular rendition of his best romantic song, “A Lover Sings,” Bragg told us that his voice was in rough shape due to “taking so much time explain Brexit to Americans.” He even thought about canceling, but went on two play a one-man, two-hour set.
It was before playing the punky, rally cry of the working class “To Have and to Have Not,” that Bragg told a story about another time he lost his voice in Minnesota, a distressing occurrence that Bragg’s manager attempted to mollify by explaining to him, “No one comes to hear you sing.” A good-humored jab that’s not far off the mark. Bragg does a lot of talking, his pleasing, character-filled, East London accent and sharp humor making him instantly feel like one of your friends at the bar. He tells stories about everything, from Facebook rants to the worst heckle he ever received—a disgruntled New Englander who barked at him, “Play your hit!” Hit(s) aside, Bragg worked through a nice chunk of his catalogue, running the gamut from chest-thumping, crowd-chanting, working class anthems like “No Power Without Authority,” to his bittersweet ode to unrequited, teenage affection, “The Saturday Boy.”
When he can, he likes to “take the piss” out of American audiences, ribbing us about the US not qualifying for the World Cup thanks to an unexpected loss against Trinidad and Tobago. “Trump already tweeted about it,” he explained, “Not fair. Other countries only had to play one team.” But when it comes to making fun of the dire political situation we’ve gotten ourselves into, he never does so without pointing the finger right back at his own country, speaking about Brexit and the refugee crisis with even more vigor.
Of course the night was dominated by political talk, with Bragg offering up his opinion on everything from “sunny day flooding” (“Looks like climate change is also going to be a class issue”) to why Hilary lost the election (“She wasn’t a change candidate”), but it’s never done in a way that feels hopeless or even disrespectful. He clearly hates Trump, referring to him only as “45,” but the general conservative population was largely left respectfully alone. Instead, Bragg focuses on explaining the stories behind his songs, using soulful new song “Saffiyah Smiles” to introduce the concept of solidarity. Inspired by Saffiyah Khan, a young woman from Birmingham who stepped in to defend a hijab-wearing woman who was being verbally abused at an English Defense League protest. Bragg told the story with pride, explaining that “there’s not enough democracy, but we can do solidarity every day of the bloody week,” before adding the very important detail that Khan was wearing a Specials t-shirt when the incident occurred.
About halfway through, his voice really started to give. He had to put “The Warmest Room” into a different key, and left out the high note at the end, saying, “I left it in San Francisco,” but the audience was more than happy to fill in any gaps, especially during “The Milkman Of Human Kindness,” and Bragg’s biggest hit, “A New England.” The grizzled effect even added to certain cuts—the very cheeky, “Handyman Blues,” was given an extra edge of masculine authority, while the cracks in his voice only authenticated the weary sentiment of “I Keep Faith.” It was an evening filled with laughter, opinions, and music—like a great night “down the pub” as they say, but Bragg never lost sight of his message. He went back to his point about the cyclical nature of political songs several times, explaining that music doesn’t have the agency to change anything, but its power instead lies in inspiring people to act. As he put it, “Woody’s guitar didn’t really kill fascists.” Returning for an encore, he played Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin,’ ” easily filling in the lyrics with references to Trump, neo-Nazis, and “MLK rolling in his grave.” “The times they are a-changin…back,” he sang, the initial humor quickly giving way to the heavy weight of truth.