As Billy began to approach the chorous of ‘Scousers Don’t Buy The Sun’, audience members rose to their feet and at the songs end, Bragg showed his trademark compassion by raising a fist of solidarity for those affected by the Hilsborough disaster, “Justice for the ’96!”
Sporadic standing ovations were a footnote of the evening. When Billy Bragg’s name is on the ticket, every utterance gets an enthusiastic response.
‘Sexuality’ had been repeating on loop in my head ahead of gig day and as fate would have it, it was his opening number. He squeezed in a cheeky “Don’t threaten me with Morrissey” lyric-change to keep things topical and segway into Brexit talk when the time was right.
There’s a distinct lack of social commentary in today’s music so thank Marx he doesn’t rely on his prior success to sell tickets. Once musicians reach super-stardom, they go one of 2 ways: exclusively play new material and only begrudgingly play old hits, or try to incorporate as many fan favourites as possible inbetween the new tunes. Of course, the bard of Barking went the way of the latter. Most of his new set was proceeded by succinct explanations of the recent political motivations behind their inception: King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood came about after recent Climate Change discoveries, and Saffiyah Smiles was inspired by a muslim counter protestor at an EDL rally in 2016.
When he did mention Thatcher it was a clever recontextualisation of the phrase ‘it doesn’t feel like my country anymore’,
“I can understand that sentiment because that’s how I felt in the 1980s when Thatcher got in again, and again, and again.”
The sincerity of his down-to-Earth demeanour is transparent by the pathos of his speaking voice: he hasn’t lost his Essex accent! None of his impassioned words tugged on my cockney heartstrings more than his send-off, “I’m Billy Bragg from Dagenham, Essex. Goodnight”. I grew up a stone’s throw from his hometown so I was most looking forward to basking in the nostalgic comfort of over-pronounced d’s and t’s. And I was by far the youngest face in the crowd. My sister and I guessed the average age would be 46 but we were as misguided as my attempt to locate the toilets after 2 cocktails and a fruity cider.
“At one of the gigs the crew were handing out bottles of water and I thought ‘Hmm. It’s a 2 hour show, and well… my audience…”
He’s genuinely funny. Like any outspoken activist with the audacity to care, he balances self-depreciation with earnest ruminations on the big stuff so as to avoid the inevitable eye roll of the cognitively dissonant. I nodded ferociously as he highlighted how unpopular it is to be empathetic and the absurdity of cloaking yourself in cynicism so you can appear ‘cool’, “the enemy isn’t the Daily Mail or conversativism – it’s cynicism.”
It’s difficult to vocalise these thoughts without facing the obvious backlash of being ‘on your high horse’ from people who would rather protect their insecurities and project their fears. Again, Billy pre-empts such judgement in his re-telling of a forward-thinking environment he played in,
“I was disappointed because it really took away from my moral superiority.”
It’s very clever how our self-serving society has shamed us into complacency but for those few hours we were free to care as much as we wanted about things that matter, yell out ‘there is a power in a union’, and there was no defender of stagnation present to sneeringly say ‘get over yourself’ as if the ‘self’ is the operative point. He also waited until the very end to play ‘A New England’, with a loving inclusion of Kirsty Maccoll’s additional verse to commemorate his friend.
In the words of the middle-aged balding man behind me, “Nice one Billy!”