A revolution started here. Comrade Bragg – the communicator – was due to chair this revolutionary worker’s ‘party’ at 21.00 hours and anticipation was high following a sell-out at The Junction.
Before we start though, word must go out to singer/songwriter Seán McGowan (no relation to any of the other famous McGowans), tonight’s support act. He came on stage with all the self-effacing drama of a roadie but left it looking more like a young fired up troubadour in the eyes of the audience having delivered a captivating set with real guts and soul. Trying his hardest indeed. Keep an eye out for him.
And so, over to gentleman Bill… Kicking off with Sexuality (“don’t threaten me with Morrissey”) he powered into some ‘golden oldies’ and a clutch of newer material with vim and vivacity. The Bard of Barking had returned to a Cambridge hotbed of left-wing embers that just needed a little stoking tonight to keep the Socialist home fires burning throughout this politically charged and musically sparse, yet soulful, set. He’d come armed with only a few trusty guitars and was superbly accompanied by guitarist C.J. Hillman who provided some beautiful touches on slide guitar adding some real colour to the sound.
In the light of recent reports about certain misogynistic events, the song She Came Along To Me from the Mermaid Avenue Woody Guthrie sessions was, sadly, more apt than ever. A stripped down but somehow even more potent Accident Waiting To Happen had real bite and edge. For the younger members of the audience Bragg’s songs must seem seem surprisingly relevant. For the veterans among us, however, it felt like a vindication; not only are Bragg’s songs more perspicacious than ever but we need him like never before. Next up was The Saturday Boy, and before some of ‘yesterday’s (Saturday) men’ in the audience had time to get too misty eyed and wistful about their own unrequited adolescent flounderings, Billy was moving onto fresh pastures via the staggering storylines behind Suffiyah Smiles, I Keep Faith and the brilliant, punningly titled Full English Brexit.
Bragg’s dulcet tones might be an acquired taste for some. Tonight, though, with a well lubricated larynx he caressed a sublime Must I Paint You A Picture to disprove the doubters. With the more stripped down sound it was up to us to fill in some of the ‘sonic gaps’ – which was easy. Those who’re familiar will remember Cara Tivey’s sumptuous female vocal accompaniment on the original Must I Paint You A Picture and Dave Woodhead’s horn on the original Saturday Boy and Levi Stubbs’ Tears, the latter also included tonight.
Sure, brothers like Billy will always run the risk of preaching to the converted at their own gigs, but what else can a socialist boy do? What he does manage to do tonight is inject some life into the right-on largely left-wing audience and leave no stone unturned in the wake of his blasts at everything from Trump to Boris to Brexit and back to Trump again with a sprinkling of Pritti Patel stirred into the mix. None of these ‘characters’ were getting off lightly tonight. A rousing and unapologetic valedictory singalong of There Is Power In A Union sealed it’s message with conviction, panache and, yes, power. A poignant ‘re-cover’ of Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changing Again reminds us that, in many ways, this method of adapting past musical signposts is the very key to Bragg’s success and relevance today. As he said himself, either he’s ‘a brilliant songwriter or things just have a habit of coming around again’ – and he warned us that it was the latter that’s made some of his songs more prescient than ever.
A slightly revised and fully revitalised Waiting For the Great Leap Forwards followed. It had so many lyrical updates it was hard at times to, well, keep up with him. This song probably best sums up his owning up to the ambiguities of being that awkward thing: a ‘political pop star’ – but Bragg has enough empathy, solidarity and humour to cushion us from the sometimes cold hard political realities. He also reminded us more than once tonight how long he’s been playing this game. What, for some, might be a tricky act of balancing relevance and nostalgia turns into a melting pot: the glory days of his musical past combined with a sobering (often verbal) indictment of a present world gone mad. Bill had come to build bridges – not walls.
A blazing version of A New England doesn’t sound remotely out of place even though he’s not quite the 21-year old he once sang about being. Paul Weller might not be able to sing Going Underground anymore but Bragg manages to inject A New England with an inspirational and potent cocktail of not being afraid of giving the public what we want together with a healthy dose of what we need to hear right now. Bragg’s songs stand the test of time for many reasons. We’re living in a more politically charged era than the one (the 1980s) that many of these songs were borne out of. He reminds us that there’s a crazy, calamitous world out there that needs addressing by us, his audience, with fire in his belly and love in his heart. “I’m Billy Bragg from Barking, Essex!” he exclaims by way of a belated introduction – as if we needed one.
And even after we thought it was all over, Bragg must have spent a good hour talking to fans at the t-shirt stall, meeting and greeting his audience and finding out what’s happening locally. You can imagine how this sort of interaction stokes him up for the road ahead, metaphorically and literally. As Bragg himself has said: ‘Englishness is about belonging’ – then I’m sure that every one of tonight’s audience felt ‘fully anglicised’ by the end. In his crusade to fight cynicism with empathy, Bragg was keen to point out that, the worst kind of cynicism is that which lies in all of us; and I swear that every last drop of cynicism had been well and truly wrung out of this Cambridge audience on leaving the Junction.
Tonight, a lover truly sang his heart out. So, brothers, sisters, start your own revolution – and cut out the middle man. The revolution is right here, right now. In our hearts.
Words from Chris Williams