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Billy Bragg, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Billy Bragg, Royal Festival Hall

Billy Bragg, Royal Festival Hall

Erstwhile firebrand proves the political passions are smouldering with a new set of Americana-influenced songs

Billy Bragg: looking backwards, or across the Pond? Pete Dunwell

Setting bankers, Baroness Thatcher, tax-dodging multinationals and Woody Guthrie to music? These days, it could only be a Billy Bragg gig. Reports of Bragg losing his political teeth, based on slightly guarded reviews of his latest album, Tooth & Nail, are on the evidence of last night greatly exaggerated. This is a songwriter who could no more detach his ideology than his right arm, and still play his guitar.  

He combined new songs and old favourites in equal measure. Many pieces used a pedal steel guitar, adding a delicious rustic wail. Bragg pre-empted criticism of the technical quality of his singing and playing with much self-deprecating commentary. While both are rough-hewn rather than finely polished, they suit the directness of his style, and unvarnished, folksy aesthetic. The new album, recorded as if live, with no vocal retakes, shows off the depth of grainy timbres in Bragg’s voice, most of which were swallowed up by the Royal Festival Hall’s PA.   

Avoiding the buttery formulae many songwriters revere is another facet of his prickly refusal to conform

The new songs were billed as drawing on personal rather than political inspiration, though at least half are straightforwardly ideological. The music is gentler, perhaps, but the words are uncompromising. In addition to Guthrie’s “I ain’t got no home anymore”, depressingly apposite today though written during the Depression, Bragg’s own “No one knows nothing anymore”, “Do unto others” and “There will be a reckoning” are pugnaciously political. The personal songs are just as distinctive, with a homespun quality to their construction that suggests Bragg sees light-fingered manipulation of a rhyme scheme as just as heinous as the bankers’ manipulation of Libor. The two lines in “Swallow My Pride”, for example, running “Oh how can a man be strong/ if he can’t even lift up the telephone and say he’s wrong” sounded so clunky it must have been deliberate.

In “Handyman Blues”, meanwhile, Bragg explored the difference between his handyman dad and himself, who needs “half an hour to change a fuse”; father was good at “pottery”, son at “poetry”. The gap between the serious emotion of the father-son relationship and the banal domesticity of the details almost derailed the project with a lethal dose of bathos, but he just about got away with it. Avoiding the buttery formulae many songwriters revere is, perhaps, just another facet of his prickly refusal to conform.

The variation in his accent between songs, widely commented on in the album reviews, seemed in performance to follow the nationality of the song quite naturally. Bragg sang his old protest songs, and new personal material like “Handyman Blues”, in his familiar, estuary twang; Guthrie’s songs, and his own Guthrie-inspired work, were conveyed in a kind of diluted Tennessee.

He has, of course, already had great success in the US with his Mermaid Avenue albums of Guthrie’s songs. It’s possible he has taken a hard look at the blasted heath that is the British pop scene and decided that there’s more interest in his kind of music in America. Tooth & Nail, recorded with an American producer (Joe Henry) and band, creating a distinctively American sound, has been selling well in the US Americana market. In a way, he’s re-packaging himself. The loss is ours.

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