Billy Bragg, Royal Shakespeare Theatre (2 Jun 13)

Billy Bragg, Stratford-Upon Avon, Iowa T-Shirt

Stratford-Upon-Avon was an appropriate setting for the start of the UK leg of our own modern day touring musical Shakespeare, Billy Bragg. With a rich back catalogue to compliment his most recent material and the ability to speak charismatically at length, alternately sharing new anecdotes and inspiring his audience on the hot topics of the day (with a few puns, pop culture references and punchlines thrown in), he is always worth seeing live, be it at festivals, bookshops, record stores or his own gigs.

As the Bard of Barking came to Shakespeare’s town on a beautiful day, the sun came out, the trees began to sing and half-way through what was the final day of the Stratford-Upon-Avon Arts Festival, steel brass bands played in Bancroft Gardens outside the venue; in the afternoon and early evening leading up to gig, the market stalls were out, there was dancing in the park, pub gardens were packed and scores of people from different backgrounds wandered through the streets of Stratford, including the man himself (pictured above). Who said Society doesn’t exist?

We were reminded of the answer to that as soon as Bragg came on with his band at the Royal Shakesphere Centre; his set opened with Ideology, and the lyrics “When one voice rules the nation just because she’s the top of the pile doesn’t mean her vision is the clearest.” Anyone familiar with Bragg’s work knows the depth of his music goes far beyond political conflict, yet when he later speaks for the many there on the night about the revulsion of the recent rewriting of the legacy of the divisive former Prime Minister he follows it with Between the Wars, with words as poetic and passionate as anything this Shakespeare theatre will have seen.

It is a song that when performed live in the past has brought tears to the eyes of the crowd singing-along on more than one occasion, particularly in the post-Major period when it looked like there could be a long-term incumbent government that would put progressive social politics at the heart of its agenda. And the original recorded version will instantly have come to many people’s mind in the aftermath of Thatcher’s death, with the lines:

I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man

And’s Bragg’s dulcet tones from the same song again rand out clearly in the head after the recent atrocity committed in Woolwich with the words:

Sweet moderation, heart of this nation,
Desert us not, we are between the wars

As a tireless campaigner against facisim as well as an ex-soldier, that barbaric murder, which was designed to stir up hatred and violence on the streets of Britain and has been a recruiting sergeant the far right, is naturally an elephant in the theatre that can’t be ignored for the most topical of singer-songwriters. And within the set are two powerful examples of mixing pop and politics that address the issue, with Woody Guthrie’s resilient call to arms, All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose, now a Bragg staple, as well as his own There Will Be A Reckoning, which he wrote for Mick Gordon’s engrossing play from 2010, which recognised that an environment of ignorance and lack of opportunity is a breeding ground for a hate-filled agenda.

But it is not just the politics that beautifully move. A stunning and unexpected rendition of Tank Park Salute, a personal and poetic tribute to his father which he always sings from the heart, took the collective breath away of the all seated audience.

There are treasures throughout, with a rare comeback for You Woke Up My Neigbourhood, perfect as the country-pop song for the band playing with him on this tour. The stripped down version of Greetings to the New Brunette still remains a treat even past its summer years, and Guthrie’s Ain’t Go No Home has become a reoccurring glorious highlight of a Bragg set over the last few years, and a perfect fit in set of heartfelt renditions.

The more recent songs are just as welcome; Goodbye is a song that can continue to be played when he returns to solo touring and Handyman Blues is a contribution that sits alongside The Lemonheads’ The Outdoor Type in themes for the more creative and celebral man.

Never Buy The Sun, will endure as both a reminder how consumers have power in the pocket in a mixed economy, as well as a conspiracy that involved a police force, a government and the mass media. In just over two hours, of course there isn’t room for many favourites and classics. “Milkman” shouts one fan. “I’ve already paid him” shouts Billy straight back.

The RST didn’t do its paying punters any favours with its strict approach to photography let alone recording, and its banning of dancing in the isles, never previously a problem at other seated venues for Bragg tours, including the Barbican and Fairfield Halls, was particularly po-faced. However, it provided context for a great writer and performer of our times. As well as the festival inspired pun “this is the winter of our disco tent”. Billy Bragg, all-round entertainer.


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