BILLY BRAGG, Sean McGowan @Town Hall, Birmingham 11/11/2017


He still doesn’t want to change the world. 


A great British lyricist once observed that it was a mighty long way down rock n roll from Liverpool Docks to the Hollywood Bowl. The modern equivalent seems to be from The Joiners in Southampton to Birmingham Town Hall. Sean McGowan works there and he’s here tonight, to play with the bloke he admits is his hero. Certainly there is a lot of similarity to his act and that of Billy Bragg’s early material. “Costa Del Solution” is what amounts to a 21st century urban update, for example. There is a whiff of the very real about “Millbrooke Road” too and “Come Unstuck” shines a light on the problems of the young. Given his delivery, subject matter and his location McGowan is bound to draw obvious comparisons to Frank Turner too, and there is something gritty about his closing tune “No Show”. He apologises to those who were expecting Shane McGowan but in truth, this younger near namesake has better teeth and probably more to offer.

Trying to stay relevant in the modern age is the eternal battle. To paraphrase a line in Billy Bragg’s last song tonight, if he was 21 years when he wrote some of these songs, he’s 59 now and he won’t be for long.

And yet, relevance, is transient. How Billy Bragg chose to stay current was to go back to his roots, and stop posting missives on Facebook and start putting them in song again instead. And, as good as the skiffle stuff with Joe Henry was last year, what he’s best at, what he was put on this earth to do in fact, is to write topical songs.

The “Bridges Not Walls” EP does basically what the “Fight Songs” EP did a few years ago and collect together his latest topical ones and put them in one handy place. He plays five of the six of them tonight and in so doing shows why he’s still the best we have. “The Sleep Of Reason” deals with the lack of empathy in the world, “King Tide And The Sunny Day Flood” is a lament on the effects of climate change, “Saffiyah Smiles” (particularly pertinent given that it deals with the events of an EDL march right in here in Birmingham) and the wonderful pair of the cover of Anais Mitchell’s “Why We Build The Wall” and “Full English Brexit” are exactly what Bragg should be about and they are marvellous examples of what political music can do.

But then, as much as he wants it not to be, as he puts it, “Top Of The Pops 1984″,  he’s got to do some of the classics. Make no mistake either, that word is not hyperbole when dealing with the likes of “Sexuality”, “The World Turned Upside Down”, “Accident Waiting To Happen” and “Levi Stubbs Tears” amongst many others. There is a dip back into the brilliant “Mermaid Avenue” stuff too for “She Came Along To Me”, but then, the treatment of women is as relevant a topic now as when Woody Guthrie wrote it in 1942.

There is a third strand to this. As Bragg jokes himself, “people don’t come to hear me sing”. They want – and indeed expect – political chat and they get it. Not perhaps the fire and brimstone of Red Wedge but certainly it is about empowerment and ending cynicism. The song “I Keep Faith” makes this plain.

Ending with “There Is Power In A Union” as usual, he returns for an encore. After the aforementioned “….Brexit” comes his re-working of Dylan to reflect modern America in “The Times They Are A-Changing Back”, before “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards” does what has done for 30 years and sets the record straight.

A lengthy set concludes, as it kind of has to, with “A New England” and 1200 Brummies still don’t want to change the world, but quite like wishing on satellites even after 35 years.

That’s the dilemma. 60 this year, Billy Bragg wants to remain cutting edge. He will, as long as he can write such warm, yet important songs as he does on his new EP, and he’ll keep filling the venues as long as he remembers his past. It’s a balancing act of great delicacy and one he gets just about right here.


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