Billy Bragg, solo and unleashed, strummed till his fingers were raw and his back ached, indulging a capacity audience at The Gov (24 April) with a rare cavalcade of hits, peppered with the customary and timely-political diatribes.
Brian Wilson once sang the lyric: “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.” Essex activist Billy Bragg is the antithesis of this sentiment. He was made for the age of Thatcherism and sadly is again well suited as a leader of rebellion in the Trump era.
He hit the stage with purpose, delivering Woody Guthrie’s ‘All You Fascists Bound To Lose’ as a rebuke to French right-wing presidential candidate Marie Le Pen. Billy, when asked whether he is to write new material about the emergence of the alt-right responded that there is nothing alt about them; the songs he wrote about Thatcher and Regan can be neatly transposed to the current day.
Image © Ross McNaughtan
‘Between The Wars’ features the lyric: 'Theirs is a world with a wall around it, and mine is a faith in my fellow man.' There is nothing new about today’s political climate; it is simply a continuation of a regression that began in the '80s, a winding back of the social upheaval of the '60s and '70s.
He emphasised this message with a contemporary rewording of Bob Dylan’s, ‘The Times They Are A Changin’ Back”. Billy, like Dylan, has a back catalogue of songs that capture the entire human experience. While some may not share his socialist views, all can relate to his odes to love and heartbreak.
Image © Ross McNaughtan
His set of 30-plus songs, which was a spontaneous ballooning out from his planned 17, was almost entirely derived from his greatest hits album, ‘Must I Paint You A Picture’, an album that took its name from a poignant song about lost love. He veered from the planned schedule because he was “in a suggestible mood” and had been “gagging to do a gig like this” after playing a run of more subdued shows in seated auditoriums with Joe Henry for their new railway song album, ‘Shine A Light’.
On this night, there was just one newer song, ‘Handyman Blues’, which was preceded by a call for blokes to abandon DIY renovations. He was open to requests, but could not always oblige. In response to one bloke’s obscure demands, he stated: “That’s easy for you mate, you only need to remember the title.”
Even after two hours and a rowdy sing-along encore of ‘New England’, the crowd were cheering for more while in a fit of delight. There was a tangible sense that such performances are like shooting stars rather than satellites; they don’t happen often. Billy wants us to keep it a secret; his body can’t cope with such an outpouring every night.
Let’s just keep it between us, ok?