Sunday, June 24, 2012

Concert Review: Billy Bragg at Old Town School Of Folk Music, June 22nd 2012

Billy Bragg came to town Friday night to play the first of his two sold-out shows at the Old Town School Of Folk Music and I was excited. It's not often that the old Brit makes his way out to Chicago and, my personal financial situation had been massaged, money saved in advance, to swing the $40 asking price for a ticket. I feel like I'm not alone in this - especially in America he's one of those cult artists you either connect very personally with or mostly ignore. It's a tough situation for an artist to live up to such projections but Bragg's reputation as a charming and skilled live performer had me heading in with high hopes.

The venue was gorgeous with a WPA-style mural above the stage, intimate seating with cabaret tables up front and a small balcony overhead and sound couldn't have been better. This worked well for the first of his two sets, which consisted of all Mermaid Avenue songs  Bragg basically gave us a Woody Guthrie 101 course, complete with bawdy jokes, personal anecdotes and readings from the man himself. Oh yeah, and there were songs too. Although the stories about Guthrie's life were fascinating (I never knew that "Go Down To The Water" was about his family seeing off Guthrie's WWII merchant ship from the seaside in Brooklyn, for example), it seemed like the songs themselves became somewhat of a side note. This wasn't helped by his choice of relatively slow and often somber choices which lost some of their power when played back-to-back as opposed to amidst other material. It wasn't until the end of this first part that he really connected with a spirited acoustic version of "All You Fascists".

His second set was devoted to his own material and was much more lively and engaging from the first song, "Upfield". You could practically feel the the crowd loosen up and sense the smiles as Bragg strummed a now-electric guitar and hit that fabulous chorus - "I've got a socialism of the heart". With only 45(ish) minutes to work with, he didn't even attempt a greatest-hits approach and instead jumped around within his catalogue to greater and lesser success. "Tomorrow's Gonna Be A Better Day" and "I Keep Faith" were props for his usual talking points about not giving up on progressive leaders and the need for optimism. It's a message that's always comforting to hear, especially delivered with Billy's cheeky humor and thick accent and yet it felt almost perfunctory in a set lacking in some all-time great songs.

"Levi Stubb's Tears" was a clear crowd favorite and with distortion on this guitar dialed back a bit, the lyrics shone through with particular power. "The Short Answer", an album track from Workers Playtime might seem and odd choice but absolutely shone in the solo setting, as did "Brickbat". The between-song banter also became less professorial and funnier, in short the second set felt like a Billy Bragg show. Indeed, he was only just hitting his stride by the time it ended. Especially sung amidst the recent torrent of deeply disheartening news for working people, his closer, "There Was Power In A Union" was both intensely sad and incredibly joyful - in a word, cathartic. Indeed, if you didn't get a tingle in the base of your spine when you heard those first opening chords then odds are, we are never going to be friends. It was that intense.

His brief encore consisted of two non-Mermaid Avenue Guthrie covers. He started promisingly with "I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore" which as been a live staple of his for years and helped carry the emotion from "Power In A Union" onwards. Then, he inexcplicably decided to end with a throwaway potty training song, "Dry Bed" which was fun as a novelty but totally out-of-touch with the mood of the crowd, especially one clearly hungering for much more Bragg.

Having already met Bragg during his last Chicago show I left immediately after the last song even though Billy, ever the good guy, was manning the merch table giving out autographs and hugs and posing tolerantly for pictures. I couldn't help but feel a little let down. After all, the guy doesn't make out my way too often and there was so much more I wanted to hear. Then, as I thought back to show and I smiled. Forgetting the jokes and anecdotes, forgetting his heroic attempts to personally connect with the crowd, forgetting the songs that were damn good even if I wouldn't have picked them, I instead thought about his performance of "Tank Park Salute" and how it effected me.

It's a profoundly moving song, written about his father's death and when he performed it this night, it was utterly entrancing. The scratchy, finger-picked guitar, Bragg's rough but tender voice, the heartbreaking acceptance of mortality worked their collective magic and I literally teared up. It was a transcendent moment, the kind that couldn't be improved upon in any way and which helped me understand my own life a little bit more. Even if I'd gotten nothing else from this night, with that one song alone, Billy had earned my forty bucks. I'm sure that to a guy like him, that's all the "critical praise" you need.

Against Th' Law
Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key
The Unwelcome Guest
Black Wind Blowing
Don't You Marry
Go Down To The Water
Another Man's Done Gone
All You Fascists

Tomorrow's Gonna Be A Better Day
Tank Park Salute
The Short Answer
Never Buy The Sun
Levis Stubbs' Tears
I Keep Faith
There Is Power In A Union

I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore
Dry Bed

Make your life better and buy some Billy Bragg music or go see him while he's on this side of the pond!

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