Billy Bragg has deep ties with the South Bank Centre, London’s sprawling concrete riverside arts complex, which houses the Royal Festival Hall. Imelda Michalczyk photographs and reviews.
The ‘Bard of Barking’, as he is sometimes affectionately referred to, organises an infrequent late summer Big Busk here, encouraging Londoners to bring guitars and assorted instruments for an afternoon singalong, which is tremendous fun. More recently, Bragg has faced controversy with his positive stance on the redevelopment of the site, one aspect of which will involve moving a cult-status skate park.
However, none of this is discussed during tonight’s performance in support of his latest Tooth & Nail album. But fear not, there are plenty of other issues on Bragg’s agenda – from voting in elections to buying guitars, the death of Margaret Thatcher to the challenges of DIY.
The set list is a rewarding mix of new tracks, including There Will Be A Reckoning and Goodbye, Goodbye, alongside a roll call of classics such as Levi Stubbs Tears, The Milkman of Human Kindness, Between The Wars and Sexuality.
Bragg is backed by four young musicians who provide a rich backdrop and a new subtly to his sound, including a haunting slide guitar and a double bass.
Bragg weaves stories from the road between songs in an entertaining and informative monologue. His relaxed and self-deprecating manner are endearing – he claims his fuller beard is the equivalent of a natural facelift and that, at 55 years of age, he can’t remember the words and chords for requests shouted out by the audience.
But he really comes into his own with his calls for social equality, political accountability and activism. Thought provoking and rousing numbers such as Never Buy The Sun and Woody Gutherie’s All You Fascists Bound To Lose demonstrate the familiar political face of Bragg.
These are balanced with songs about the struggle to keep long term relationships alive in Chasing Rainbows and the male poet being resigned to his inability to match his father’s practical expertise in Handyman Blues.
Bragg laughs at media accusations that he has suddenly ‘gone country’ with this album, remarking that there has long been a “discernible twang” to his music, before launching into a faithful rendition of his 1991 song You Woke Up My Neighbourhood, proving his point perfectly.
In contrast, a mock Kraftwerk inspired start to early hit A New England is revitalising, with the crowd singing every chorus.
A standing ovation brings Bragg and band back to the stage for an encore that includes the hard-hitting There is Power in a Union. He introduces the track saying that cynicism is today’s greatest enemy to anyone who wants to change the world for the better. “The only antidote to cynicism is activism,” says Bragg. “If you want to change anything you’ve got to organise.” At the end of the song he points to the banner that has been hanging behind him throughout the show for the Fire Brigades Union, with a slogan that reads “We save lives, not banks”.
The night ends with the glorious Waiting For The Great Leap Forward, with additional new lyrics including a call for the release of the imprisoned members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot.
As he leaves the stage, Bragg hurls the teabag from his mug into the crowd. A comic flicker of his own punk roots, perhaps. The appreciative crowd won’t mind – they just seem happy that the Bard is back.
at Royal Festival Hall, London on 1 December 2013
Review and Photography by Imelda Michalczyk on 1 December 2013, London.