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Monday, 3 June 2013

Billy Bragg: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon June 2 2013 review

He may have mellowed musically in recent years but don’t be deceived. In middle age, Billy Bragg is still a political firebrand, fighting tooth and nail for the causes he believes in – warning that to regard him as some sort of cuddly comedian is a mistake.

In the intimate confines of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the between songs banter was littered with references to the death of Margaret Thatcher, the Government policies that have broken Britain, and the pressures brought to bear on the working man.

He blasted tabloid media cynicism, returning the weary anger of post-Hillsborough Don’t Buy The Sun to the setllist; he celebrated equality, and the price that has to be paid, in the rousing rock and roll of Sexuality.

Recession ills were addressed several times, most poignantly in Woody Guthrie’s I Ain’t Got No Home. He condemned both the murder of drummer Lee Rigby, and the reaction of the BNP and EDL with Guthrie’s All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose and the urgent There Will Be A Reckoning.

Not that it was all politics and polemic. Songs from the Tooth And Nail album dealt with growing older, Handyman Blues and Goodbye Goodbye among them. Tank Park Salute, tribute to his cancer victim father, was deeply moving.

He rocked out, too, with fan favourites such as You Woke Up My Neighbourhood and another Guthrie song culled from those Mermaid Avenue sessions with Wilco, My Flying Saucer.

The latter, he said, carried the dream of an alternate universe where Woody Guthrie and Buddy Holly cheated death and invented country rock before Roger McGuinn and his Byrds, plugging in while Bob Dylan was still in short pants.

But Bragg regards himself not as a folk or country singer, despite much of his music grown from the roots of both, but rather a soulman, serving up a sublime Swallow My Pride, with gorgeous Steve Cropper-styled guitar from CJ Hillman to prove the point.

At the close, he told the audience that the real enemy was neither capitalism nor conservatism, but rather the cynicism we all carry within, the feeling of ‘Why bother? Nothing will change?” before launching in to Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards.

This was Bragg at the top of his game in a venue which perfectly complemented more than two hours of songs spanning his entire career. There must surely be more gigs at the home of the Bard.

William Shakespeare would have approved.

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