Enmore Theatre, March 22
TO BORROW FROM SYDNEY'S own supergroup, Seeker Lover Keeper, let us consider Mr W. Bragg, across three nights, as Fighter Joker Lover.
Having taken us through Activist Billy, on Monday, and Showman Billy on Tuesday, the artist formerly known as the Bard Of Barking gave us on Wednesday night, Romantic Billy. Which is to say mostly sad Billy. Uncomprehending but willing to learn Billy. Wishing for someone, anyone, but principally that little black cloud in a dress, Mary – the woman you’d find between Marx and marzipan in the dictionary– to love him back Billy.
Which is no bad thing. A loser in love he may be, but this Billy is quite a winning one.
He had always been prepared to bare his pop inclination as much as his heart of course – see Greetings To The New Brunette or the nugget of vulnerability tucked inside the humour in his version of Walk Away Renee on night two – when narrowcasters, seeing red, thought him only as the agit in agit-pop. But here was the tender comrade with unabashed pop tunes gushing out of him the worse he felt.
Like the slow slow twirl of Must I Paint You A Picture that leans into a kind of David Ackles and Fred Neil burnished folk warmth, or the way The Only One makes maudlin self-pity ever so attractive by embracing rather than fighting its elegance, bearing a Marr/Morrissey imprint (from back when you could mention the latter without having to apologise) on its everyman t-shirt.
Even when disguising the bruises under a new wave sleeve, like the proto-jangle She’s Got A New Spell, Sad Billy was mixing crushed lines (“The laws of gravity are very very strict/But you’re just bending them for your own benefit”) with rising melodies. And if you want wistful drifting into deep sadness – tied to childhood remembered, childhood lost and childhood to come, rather than mere matters of the heart – at opposite ends of the night he threw us The Space Race Is Over and Tank Park Salute. While in between showcasing his oft-maligned (not least by himself) voice in the contemplative space of Neil’s Dolphins.
Yes, we got an unaccompanied Internationale and a power-charged A Pict Song, but jeez, the man clearly was made for heartbreak and Hoovers.
The second batch of Bragg albums, to which this night was devoted – Workers Playtime, Don’t Try This At Home and William Bloke – did culminate in Happy Billy of course. A Billy who, having once sung “this would never happen if we lived by the sea” did end up by the sea, and blissful.
We saw that love and baby arriving in Bloke’s quietly graceful Brickbat, which carries the weight of joy found and the fear of losing that joy; and the new man setting a course for optimism as he chased the sun over the hillside in Upfield (“I’ve got a socialism of the heart”). And inclusivity has rarely been as freefallingly joyful – Niall Anderson banging away at the joanna – as you’ll find with his “disco hit”, Sexuality, or as energisingly abrasive as in the “chop and clang” of Accident Waiting To Happen.
But the final night of the run maybe proved that Sad Billy was right in more ways than one when he sang “the most important decisions in life are made between two people in bed”.
Setting the world to right is crucial, demanding work from all of us against the remnants and descendants of “Reagan, Thatcher, Howard, the three Horsemen Of The Apocalypse”, the dedicated swallowers of fascism who might be throwing nazi salutes in Melbourne or beating up protestors in Sydney, but you need that other thing as well.
“I used to want to plant bombs at the Last Night Of The Proms/But now you'll find me, with the baby, in the bathroom … The sun came up, the trees began to sing and light shone in on everything/I love you”.
Billy Bragg plays The Northern, Byron Bay, March 26; The Tivoli, Brisbane, March 29-31; Freo Social, Fremantle, April 4-6; National Folk Festival, Canberra, April 8-9.
Click here to read a review of night one.
Click here to read a review of night two.
I Heard It Through the Grapevine
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards