“Those that are remembered, are never gone” says Billy Bragg into his microphone, right before he plays a gorgeous “Tank Park Salute”. The beautiful tribute to his father.
And, it seems to me, that moment, sums up Bragg in 2021.
To rewind slightly, that line is the hook from a new song, “Pass It On” from his new album “A Million Things That Never Happened”. A track about tracing his family tree and about how he found his place in the world. “Don’t think I’ve gone soft,” he says.
And you know what, he hasn’t. Not a bit of it. You can listen to the career spanning set tonight, and you can hear genuine warmth and brilliant balladry – the night starts with “A Lover Sings” for example, and there’s others like “The Price I Pay”, or “Must I Paint You A Picture” from a little later in the set, even “….Salute” is 30 years old now. And yet to many he’s still “the socialist singer songwriter”.
Now, your views on this will depend on whether you are a socialist or not, I am, proudly so, but its not really a given that everyone with a ticket shares these politics. Simply put, there’s a warmth here. It’s tough not to notice it, a gentle atmosphere, this is not a “red wedge” show – in fact I am not sure that Boris Johnson is mentioned at all – Billy Bragg in 2021, as I say, is a different artist.
He’s not “Bash em Bragg” anymore, he’s not “Chop And Clang Bragg” what he is, is a superb songwriter, who’s here, with keyboard player Thomas Collison to – in his words – “reflect where he is right now”.
And, where he is right now is an artist with a new record that he wants to show off. It’s a brave set, given how many new songs he plays from a record that isn’t out yet. “Should Have Seen It Coming” and the title track are played early, along with what – on first listen – seems to be the highlight “Ten Mysterious Pictures That Cannot Be Explained” which deals with the power of the Internet.
Before the interval, that old silver guitar comes out and “Levi Stubbs Tears” does ir, and when he returns its with the “hit” of “Sexuality”. That’s an interesting case too, given that as a self-styled “topical singer/songwriter” he’s evolved the focus on that one, less in solidarity with the LBGTQI community to place itself firmly in line with the Transgender one (he gives an impassioned speech about it too).
The second half is a mixture of “old” and “new”. From “Freedom Isn’t Free” and “I Will Be Your Shield” (“the core of the new record”) to “Moving The Goalposts” and a fire and brimstone “There Is Power In A Union”, which as usual ends the set.
The encore is the gig in microcosm. “Never Buy The Sun” should be taught in schools in my humble opinion, his version of “Walk Away Renee” is knockabout fun as ever, and “Waiting for The Great Leap Forwards” is, as ever, an evolving work, that never lets you down.
So is the bloke that wrote it. All those years ago.
Last time I’d seen him, was in December 2019. Just before we had our arses handed to us in an election that rejected pretty much all he – and I – stood for. Thing is, whether you are still in the Labour Movement or not, then tonight was a rejection of the nastiness. That evil bitch who said “there was no such thing as society”, she wouldn’t understand.
Billy Bragg does. He knew that “wearing badges is not enough for days like these” back in 1990. And right now, we need the “milkman of human kindness”. He’s that and more tonight. Somewhere between Max Miller and Joe Strummer he reckons. That’s a hell of an aim and one he pulls off with ease. He doesn’t even need to play “A New England” either. Maybe we aren’t looking for a new one. Just a better one. The fightback begins here.