Saturday, April 14, 2012

It's wrong to wish on space hardware

I've been putting together a writing "portfolio" of sorts, and found this old show review I wrote back in 2006. The CJLO Magazine editor at the time, (Alex Huynh) replied "[...]wow, that was a good review, thanks... really dug it" upon reading it. This was probably one of my favourite shows ever attended, and I'm really hoping the article does the great BB justice.

Billy Bragg
with Seth Lakeman
@ Club Soda
September 22, 2006

I recently remarked to a friend that many shows I've been assigned to review in the past always have an "Our Town" feeling to them. The stage sets are always simple, containing only an amp and maybe a turn table or a guitar stand. No more than one or two people perform on stage at any given time, and the lighting is always minimal or non-existent (Sisters of Mercy I'm looking at you), props and smoke machines sometimes omitted. The show on September 22nd was no different (or so it seemed at first). This was Billy Bragg: guitar, two amplifiers, and a voice.

In my youth I had dreams of seeing Billy Bragg perform. The only album of his I owned back then was Back to Basics (1987), consisting of tracks from his first three politically-charged releases and most notably, his first album Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy (1983). When I listened to the album (and I listened a lot), in my mind I pictured a man alone in a darkened theatre playing guitar and just being himself. The songs echoed in my head, along with thoughts of neighborhood children (myself included) sneaking into the theatre, unseen by Billy, ready to witness something special. Before Billy Bragg took the stage I was left wondering, what will make this show different from those dreams and Our Town?

Over the past 25 years Billy Bragg has been making music and reiterating time and again his personal commitment to political and humanitarian issues. This tour-- promoting the giant box set Billy Bragg Volume I released this past March, which consists of 7 CDs and 2 DVDs and rare previously unreleased tracks (a second volume is set to be released October 9, 2006)-- is very much indicative of these themes and of Bragg's passion for punk, rock, blues and folk music.

Early in his career, Billy Bragg created many songs about his disdain for the Thatcher government in the United Kingdom, and the themes he touched upon then [and in his music even now], are very much valid for today's political climate in and outside of the UK. The show at Club Soda that night was not entirely serious, however, and Bragg often engaged in banter with the audience (which prompted one audience member to laugh and say, "The Comedy Stylings of Billy Bragg"). In addition to his political feelings, Billy Bragg spoke of his vices (hanging out in record shops as a lad), having once drawn inspiration from Simon and Garfunkle, and of his fondness for internet videos depicting talking cats.

Bragg also mentioned MySpace a few times throughout the show, though he did not speak of the run-in he had with that company, wherein Bragg disputed terms and conditions of the site that at one time allowed News International to reuse any content created by users without remunerating the owner, terms which were later changed when Bragg removed his music from the site in protest.

Billy Bragg revealed to us his alter-ego "Johnny Clash," who was a clever mixture of Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash, in the song he affectionately called The Old Clash Fan Flight Song.

Her later mentioned his book (to be released at the same time as Billy Bragg Volume II) The Progressive Patriot: A Search For Belonging, which discusses Englishness and national identity, and Bragg joked how this book should sell very well in Quebec. He performed the title track from England, Half English and later a roadie named Randy brought the man his second cup of hot tea, which was quite fitting.

Bragg's performance gave us a chance to see how truly amazing the man plays the electric guitar. His technique appeared effortless, and the songs sounded much richer and passionately felt; for example, Like Soldiers Do from Brewing Up With Billy Bragg (1996) performed live was more amazing than the original recording that it took a verse or two to realize what song it was. He continued to touch upon matters of the heart with Sexuality from the album Don't Try This At Home (1996).

One stand-out was a currently unreleased new song, entitled Farm Boy. He "forgot" the words and asked if the crowd knew the lyrics and could help him out. The main set ended with a clever song depicting a summary of what he discussed during the show.

The first encore included the songs Black Wind Blowing and Eisler On The Go from Mermaid Avenue (1998) and Mermaid Avenue II (2000), which he played acoustically. The song lyrics on these albums are originally by Woody Guthrie, and later became part of a collaboration between Bragg, Wilco and Natalie Merchant after Guthrie's daughter Nora became familiar with Billy Bragg's music in the early 1990's. She personally requested that Billy Bragg compose music for unused lyrics written, but never realized as finished songs, by her father. She was impressed by his ability to perform effortlessly with country and blues musicians, and because they (Woody and Billy) touched upon similar subject matter in their songwriting.

Bragg also performed prison songs originally by Leadbelly, and then employed a steel slide on guitar for the famous song The Bourgeois Blues, and also updated the lyrics to make them contemporarily relevant.

For his second and final encore, childhood dreams were realized when Billy Bragg performed all seven tracks from Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy, most notably The Milkman of Human Kindness, To Have and To Have Not, and crowd-favourite A New England. For that final song, Bragg invited fans to sing the chorus, and then surprisingly added the since-forgotten "extra" verse (added to the late Kirsty MacColl's version of the song):

My dreams were full of strange ideas / My mind was set despite the fears / But other things got in the way / I never asked that girl to stay / Once upon a time at home / I sat beside the telephone / Waiting for someone to pull me through / When at last it didn't ring, I knew it wasn't you.

Billy Bragg remarked how he wanted to be a soul singer, but that deep in his heart liked being a punk rocker. One might argue that he is indeed both, and what made this show different, made the man real, and what brought so much to life was his sense of humour. The show ended with his call to the audience that we fight cynicism and keep the faith.

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