(Billy Bragg doubling up on a triple show run)
Enmore Theatre, March 21
LIKE THEY TELL YOU in year nine drama class, junior cricket or second level NXIVM, there’s nothing like having a cause to fight for to lift your motivation, and with it your energy. And when that happens you can drag everyone else with you. Take Mr William Bragg for example.
Billy Bragg – playing tonight with keyboardist Niall Anderson – could never be accused of phoning it in on any of the tours I’ve seen since 1987, if for no other reason than as he has most often toured alone there is nowhere to hide lethargy or distraction. You can’t be the milkman of human kindness if you can’t be arsed even filling the bottle.
But I doubt anyone could argue that there is an extra gust of wind beneath his wings these days as his lifelong commitment to inclusivity irrespective of class, race, sexuality or inexplicable fondness for a team other than West Ham has found common cause with not just a resurgent interest in unionism (the ABC staff standing near me punching the air during There Is Power In A Union a couple of days ahead of their strike, would agree) and Indigenous acknowledgement, but the rights of transgender and non-binary people.
A combination not coincidentally currently opposed by the same reactionary forces he’s been fighting since attending his first Rock Against Racism concert, right up to actual Nazis. On the streets of Melbourne. In 2023.
This is evident not just in the songs selected but in the once again long, once again passionate, between-song monologues that upbraided libertarians (but not, he was keen to point out to the fuzzy of hearing, librarians) and pearl-clutchers, while exhorting the rest of us to amend and not just attend. And maybe laugh at Morrissey.
The energy from those sections, which are too long to be called interludes, flows through everything else then, underpinning the way this show – the career-spanning opening night of three that will focus on specific albums over the next two – built from a subdued and sonically slow to balance start of A Lover Sings, The Million Things That Never Happened and Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key, to peak communal singing moments such as Sexuality, Power In A Union, and of course, the closing song, Great Leap Forwards.
Just as important as this energy flow was the thematic flow. This saw the advice he offered in Mid Century Modern to a section of his audience (“geezers my age” who once were radical but struggle with current inclusiveness) subtly hit even harder when in the next song, Valentine’s Day Is Over, he sang about our “your idea of justice becomes rougher and rougher”, just as the directness of Woody Guthrie’s All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose laid a platform for the much more playful Sexuality, which grinned at Melbourne’s anti-trans/fascists alignment, “if you stick around I bet we could find the right pronoun”.
It reinforced the emphasis of I Will Be Your Shield, a ballad in the mould of grander pop types with only keyboards, with the starker guitar return in Milkman Of Human Kindness, which offers the same sentiment but in less refined dress. And it deepened the generational and familial connections through Yarra Song and an especially moving Tank Park Salute.
It worked then: he had the motivation; we got the satisfaction. Sorted.
Ready for night two (albums one, two and three) and night three (albums four, five and six)? Yep.
Billy Bragg plays the Enmore Theatre tonight and Wednesday.
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.
18. Yarra Song
19. Tank Park Salute