There was little which escaped Bragg’s scrutiny before an appreciative and packed Symphony Hall audience, from the serious subject of fascism and financial greed to the usefulness of beards, which according to our Barking balladeer covers a multitude of chins - groan at will, and rebellion against DIY.
|Billy Bragg in Birmingham|
Looking like a mannequin from the window display of a Nashville gentleman's outfitters and fighting a throat infection which had dogged him from the German leg of his Tooth and Nail tour, Bragg’s self-deprecating and relaxed manner gave the concert the feel of a much cosier gathering down a local pub.
With what seemed like enough guitars to kit out a small militia Bragg treated his fans to some urban country with Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key and then Chasing Rainbows which was a full-on country & western ballad, complete with pedal steel about the trials of love, about the only elements of country it didn't have was failed crops and having to shoot your faithful dog.
These kind of made his later remonstrations about the press saying he had gone country a little hollow, but it was all in good fun.
With a change to his electric Fender, which was a cue for a lengthy explanation about the dilemma in buying it and how a message from Woody Guthrie helped him make up his mind, the Bragg of old emerged with All You Fascists Bound To Lose.
It did what it said on the tin, a straight between the eyes, punk rock song of anti-fascism. It was a great example of how, after 30 years of being on the road, Bragg has lost none of his fire for pointing out injustice and for rallying people to work together to change things.
The partisan audience appreciated it too of course, they had come for some of the "radical" stuff.
This linked in nicely with a song from his hero Guthrie and I Ain’t Got No Home In This World which was a soft dust bowl ballad to which Bragg brought a deep, clear sound.
Bragg brought back the country sound with You Woke Up My Neighbourhood before unleashing Scousers Never Buy The Sun, a scathing rant against the media in general and newspapers in particular - referring to the boycott which still exists for many Liverpudlians over Murdoch’s tabloid coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.
In the wake of the phone tapping scandal, The Leveson Inquiry and the not exactly lamented demise of the News of the World it's one of those songs that all journalists on all sides of the political spectrum should listen to periodically.
Bragg did the middle section of the set without the band covering She’s Got A New Spell, explaining his penchant for visiting museums in the many periods he has time on his hands while waiting to play a gig.
It would be difficult for anyone to disagree with his stance on the importance of Remembrance Day because collectively our record of learning from the past is a disgrace.
|Bragg's latest album which gives its name to his tour|
This was followed by Milkman of Human Kindness, Levi Stubbs Tears and Sexuality which again was introduced with Bragg's brand of subtle, sarcastic wit with the barb of making people think about tolerance.
He was back on the acoustic guitar for Goodbye Goodbye before moving on to the harder rock sound of There Will Be A Reckoning.
This song took its toll on his voice which up to this point had held up fine but, fortunately it proved to be a minor blip.
Bragg had pre-warned his fans about his condition and had worked out an effective system with the help of special tea, which he claimed if your drank enough of it would make you sing in tune; an industrial sized box of tissues and a clever way of getting his drummer to cover his expectoration like a vintage BBC sound man coming up with a euphemistic sound for having sex. His plaintive rant about his lack of DIY skills and even stronger lack of enthusiasm for learning any led into his Handyman Blues, from his latest album from which the name of the tour is taken.
Bragg is a great raconteur and his barely believable story about Kraftwerk, which was really just an excuse to bring in an electronic parody of their sound, he eventually came out with one of his classics New England and heading towards the end of the set he pulled out another with Accident Waiting to Happen.
The singer/songwriter is such an engaging character with an easy, friendly blokey manner - which even in the midst of his political meanderings makes you think but never makes you feel uncomfortable - that time spent watching him perform passes too quickly.
Bragg lives by what he believes and has never got too big to lose that common touch and is still willing to busk, which he will be doing on December 17 on the streets of London to raise money and awareness of Shelter.