Enmore Theatre, March 21
HE SINGS, HE DANCES, HE is The Beloved Entertainer.
Night one of this three-nighter in Sydney had been about Billy Bragg The Ever Renewed Activist. A career-spanning set of songs liberally dotted with his most recent material, interspersed with well nutted-out monologues, reflected his vigour in the fight for trans rights and Indigenous recognition comfortably fitting with and energising a philosophy of inclusion that has long encompassed workers’ rights, sexual choice and social equality.
You could sum it up physically in the arms raised, on and off-stage, during There Is Power In A Union.
Night two, drawn only from his first three albums (“the orange, the green and the blue,” as he described them) didn’t skip the resistance. Opening with The World Turned Upside Down reminded anyone unsure that “we will not bow to the master or pay rent to the lords”, while the late appearance of Which Side Are You On? retained the edge of anger, spurred anew by anti-trans bigots. But this undoubtedly was Showman Bill.
Looser: he explained that without the pressure of the previous night’s recording for radio broadcast he was happily “fucking around”, the monologues jovially meandering, the forgotten lines hanging teasingly and an air of “bollocks to rock’n’roll” pervading.
Rawer: drawing on songs written and originally played with less refined technique, this was the “chop and clang night” he told us. Performed mostly solo on guitar, with only a few contributions from keyboardist Niall Anderson, there were occasionally some of the “expensive chords” he’s pilfered from Johnny Marr since the early ‘80s, but nothing needed to come between us and Levi Stubbs’s Tears.
(That said, one of the show’s highlights came in the encore with what you might call the most lush sound of the evening, Bragg’s “reinterpretation” of Walk Away Renee, Anderson’s piano stepping in for Marr’s original evocative guitar, and the once extemporised tale of misunderstood love and “the most illegible bachelor” still amusing over still beautiful chords.)
And funnier: along with the continuing jokes about the weak bladders of fans of a certain age – oi!, watch it mate – advice for “any young people who have inadvertently wandered in tonight”, and a retelling of his famous mushroom biryani payola of BBC’s John Peel to get Milkman Of Human Kindness played, Bragg reminded us that while Ideology and Myth Of Trust dissected the world then (and still sound on the money today), he was also writing “songs about rain and wanking”. Cue St Swithins Day. Cue also more than a few giggles.
You could sum it up physically in the junior chorus boy shapes thrown and hint of soft shoe shuffle in Honey I’m A Big Boy Now, which came with dancehall piano and some ooh-er nurse eyebrow work.
Around the good humour came a reasonable degree of darkness though. The Man He Killed, based on a Thomas Hardy poem, was both a classier brand of murder ballad and an anti-war screed, The Man In The Iron Mask earthed the show after the elevated pleasures of Greetings To The New Brunette (new line: “How can you lie there and think of England when you don’t know who’s on the women’s team?”), and the double hit of Between The Wars and Levi Stubb’s Tears Is a heartbreaker.
No Saturday Boy? Not this time, sadly for a number of people in the room. But they got to go way from the Enmore singing A New England, probably remembering they were 21 when they heard this song, and pretending they are 22 now, though it won’t be for long. And that’s always going to win them over, as Mr Entertainer knows all too well.
Billy Bragg plays the Enmore Theatre tonight. Also playing 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.
7. It Says Here
14. Between the Wars
19. Walk Away Renée
20. A New England