Ain’t Nobody That Can Sing Like Me Tour
Canberra Theatre Centre
23 October, 2012
Billy Bragg has apparently been recognised in Britain as a national treasure. I remember him as a protest singer who got me into deep trouble in early-80s America when I played his pro-union, anti-capitalism cassette tapes in Conservative America. On the evidence of Tuesday night’s concert in Canberra, he is both.
Some things have changed: for one thing, he’s older, as are we all – approx 90% of the audience is over 40 – and I’ve never sat down for a Billy gig before. He still commands the same devotion, particularly among men; 70% of the audience is male and sporting a fine array of t-shirts. He exhibits more humour than previous incarnations (I last saw him in 1996) but his enthusiasm and passion remain; this Billy still comes to the boil.
The evening is divided into two sets. First he plays the music of Woody Guthrie, intending to evoke the spirit of ‘little guy’, and after a short interval he is back to bring us the essence of Mr Bragg. For the Woody set he sits with an acoustic guitar chatting about the process of developing these tunes as though he were some cool scout leader (not the creepy kind) around a camp fire.
Woody Guthrie (who died prematurely of Huntington’s disease) left 3,000 songs behind. Billy says he’s been writing songs for over 40 years and hasn’t written close to 1,000. Nora Guthrie, Woody’s youngest daughter, allowed him access to the manuscripts after seeing him struggle through a Woody Guthrie musical workshop at Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody’s home town.
Billy says he thought he could blag his way through it – he knew three songs, although he knew if anyone played one of the ones he was counting on, he’d be stuffed. He was alarmed to find the other participants in the workshop were Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Arlo Guthrie (Woody’s son) – “Dylan couldn’t make it”. Pete Seeger had a whole load of notes stuck to his guitar with titles of Woody Guthrie songs and Billy was amazed to realise how many he knew.
He was doing alright until they came to play This Land is Your Land and they each got up to play a verse. When he came to his turn he tried to bluff his way through, explaining that as a Brit, it wasn’t really his land so he didn’t feel he could sing it – it was soon apparent, however, that he didn’t know the words and was busted, although he claims Nora took pity on him.
He explains that although the sheets say ‘words and music by Woody Guthrie’, there is no music – just words. This suits Billy just fine as he can’t read or write music himself. He says a proper musician is one who plays the piano, whereas he just makes it up in his head as he goes along. Woody’s words, he says, have an implicit rhythm that indicates how the song should be sung. Some even, as he self-deprecatingly remarks, “deserve more than the three major and one minor chord I usually throw at things”.
He intersperses this instruction with several great songs including Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key and Against the Law. He ranges from the powerful Slipknot, a racially charged number about the knot on the hangman’s noose, to the none-too subtle Volcanoes, in which a metaphoric volcano explodes in a song about Ingrid Bergmann.
A poignant and poetic song Go Down to the Water is explained as the result of Woody’s wish for his wife Marjorie to write words in the sand on ‘their’ beach at Coney Island, which would be carried by the waves to him on his ocean ship during WWII. Billy melds music based on a traditional Irish folk song and it works beautifully.
Billy makes references to academics who want to know the deeper meaning behind everything and says they are willing to rummage through bins to look for evidence. His own lyrics are probably scrutinised in modern universities and he comments that all his songs are about nothing more than shagging – “Yes, even Between the Wars” – which suggests he is tired of being asked.
Woody Guthrie is famously known for three things. Firstly he wrote This Land is Your Land; secondly he inspired Bob Dylan. He also inspired Joe Strummer (who used to call himself Woody), and Billy in turn refers to himself as a child of the Clash. The third thing is that his guitar had ‘This machine kills fascists’ written on it. This is clearly Billy’s favourite Woody fact as he finishes the first set with a raging rendition of All You Fascists, raw with emotion and pulsing with hope.
After a 20 minute break, (where people were drinking wine in the foyer!) he comes back on as Billy Bragg, standing and with an electric guitar. He immediately breaks a string in the first song (Sexuality) through playing ‘in anger’ but he is consummately adaptable (even supplying his own backing vocals at one point) and swaps guitar as the other one is re-stringed.
When it is returned to him he constantly re-tunes it, to his own amusement, building this into his set as he asks “does anyone know any jokes?” He is comfortable on stage and has a great rapport with his sound engineer/ producer Grant Showbiz who sits twiddling the knobs on the sound desk - they have worked together for the past 20 years so it's touching to see their easy interactions.
Naturally, Billy talks a lot between songs, like a stand-up comic linking comments from earlier and coming full circle with his rants and tirades. He has a fair understanding of Australian politics (having appeared on the televised political debating programme Q&A) and he has a lot to say about Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott, none of it complimentary.
He retains his anger for British politics, commentating that the country is in the worst state since Thatcher was in power, but people are numbed by X-Factor into not caring about the big picture. He admits he made a mistake with tactical voting for the liberals, so that he ended up voting for a party he doesn’t support against a party he despises, and they joined forces together anyway and are ripping his country apart.
He has a range to suit all tastes, however, and plays old hits and new songs, while also adding new lines to well-known favourites – “Why not?” – and revamping the classic Great Leap Forward with lyrics to suit the current political crop. A new tune, Scousers Never Buy The Sun, confronts the phone-hacking scandal, the Murdoch Empire, the disgusting lies told about the Hillsborough disaster, and the scurrilous scaremongering of the media.
His strongest ire is reserved for cynicism, which he rates as a greater enemy than capitalism or consumerism. He believes (yes, he still believes) that the internet is the worst source of this scourge, and shares a tweet he received, which he felt was awful and amazing at the same time. “The great thing about Twitter is that all your life you thought Billy Bragg was a cunt, and now you can tell him”.
He can laugh about this but knows there is a serious side that could destroy young people trying out their ideas and ethics in public for the first time, and urges us to confront the racism, sexism and homophobia on the internet. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to be abusive, and he counsels against feeding the trolls, “Starve the bastards”.
All of which leads nicely into his anti-cynicism campaign song, and he sings Tomorrow’s Going to be a Better Day. He warns that it does contain whistling, in the way that people with nut allergies need to be warned beforehand, as some people are allergic to whistling, “but if it makes you feel better, it’s ironic whistling”.
Again, during this set he intersperses new material with old favourites, and it’s great to hear Levi Stubbs Tears and Must I Paint You a Picture? delivered with all the panache of old. Greetings to the New Brunette gets a new slant with a dedication to Tony Abbott, and, although he suggests the crowd sing along, they don’t, perhaps not wanting to miss anything. It could also be that they are chastened from being laughed at for interrupting an earlier song, “That was my dramatic pause: this is a theatre!”
If the atmosphere is a little subdued, he is still the master of it, and he informs us jokingly, “Pete Seeger told me to be a folk singer you had to tune up on stage and finish with a sing-song”. He obliges by closing his set with New England and when he asks, “Shall we sing a verse for Kirsty McColl?” the audience resoundingly reply with the one about waiting for someone to pull me through. I think it is him, after all. He certainly injected some much-missed motivation back into music.