Concert notes: Billy Bragg

June 15, 2008

[embedded YouTube video; if you can’t see it, click here]

[Park West, Chicago, IL; June 14, 2008]

The songwriter Darrell Brown wrote in the New York Times’ ‘Measure for Measure’ blog that every good song needs three things: honesty, humanity, and hooks.

An honest song will show innocence, vulnerability and strength all at the same time…Then, it has to be full of humanity, and by that I mean the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual sides of humanity. The big themes — the brokenness and the triumph of it all….Then, finally — and this is extremely important to a song — it has to be filled with hooks, basically because I don’t want to bore people to death with all the honesty and humanity I am parading about.

By this measure (and, really, any other you care to name), Billy Bragg is a brilliant songwriter. I haven’t listened to much Billy Bragg recently, and I was struck by how much his songs have the power to move me emotionally. This was true of not only his older songs like “Sexuality,” but also songs from his new album, Mr. Love & Justice, including “I Keep Faith” and “Farm Boy,” both which I heard for the first time last night.

Bragg is also a remarkable performer – as he wryly put it last night, “You got to have a bit of showmanship – otherwise, it’s just folk music, innit?” This was my first Billy Bragg concert, and I hadn’t realized that his shows are about equally split between music and comic/political monologue (as the quote from his manager, near the start of the video above, suggests) – he makes Ted Leo seem taciturn. Occasionally, the humour and the music merged, such as when he played The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” in the style of Johnny Cash, or when he snuck the opening to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” into the long guitar outro of “The Saturday Boy” – in deference to his older fans, whom he suspected might not get the joke, he followed it up with the famous riff from Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”

The only wrong note of the night was the venue, the Park West in Chicago. Think modernist dinner theatre – black and silver, all small tables and booths, with everyone was seated through the performance. The acoustics were terrific, but I’m not sure I need table service and I’m really not a fan of the insanely overpriced drinks ($9 for a tiny shot of Maker’s). What took it from oddly cushy to actually disturbing, however, was the superfluity of a bathroom attendant, an older black woman no less. It felt anachronistic – like I had time-traveled back to before the civil rights era. The cognitive dissonance of that, at the concert of a man who’s spent his life fighting against racism and sexism, left me reeling.

More Billy Bragg: website myspace emusic

Also check out his Wikipedia entry and his blog.

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