Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Music Hall Toronto ON
Billy Bragg passed through Toronto last week during a “retrospective” tour to flaunt his new box sets and a book. One year shy of 50 he hasn’t lost his love for the underdog or his spite for the entitled and empowered. He has mellowed though. A little embarrassed by the support he put behind Tony Blair, who he calls ‘George Bushs’ poodle’, he still insists it’s more important to be active with the activists than sleep in with the sleepers. A more mature Billy accepts you have to work with the tools you have and worse than being a Conservative, worse than being a Capitalist, worse than being a member of the BNP (strike that, there’s not much worse than that), is being a cynic. ‘Cause cynics have lost their faith in the innate goodness of man and it’s hard to improve your lot if that’s your attitude. Actually, looking back at that, Billy’s not only mellowed, he’s slipped into a coma. Much less bitter than you might think, he’s really a ‘happy-go-lucky’ bloke who just feels compelled to point out the social inequities.
Billy’s rich now. Has a big house on the water. Motorized vehicles. Doesn’t have to work for a living. All these things can now be slung back at him in an attempt to ignore the message while smearing the messenger. It’s a trap the right uses to shut up those who may have some power from speaking out for those who have none. I mean if middle-class whites from the North didn’t make such a big stink about apartheid in the Southern US would the advances made in the 1950’s and 1960’s have been achieved? Give him credit for this: he still lives in the UK, unlike the Strolling Bones and other megastars who have fled to a tax-haven in Europe or on some Island off the coast of France.
In the tradition of Woody Guthriehe is one of the few remaining troubadours. This tour sees him standing center stage with his guitar and two amps. Most of the show is electric, all except the first encore where some Guthrie songs and a Leadbelly rewrite are done acoustic.
The tour has had stops in Halifax, Ottawa and Montreal as Billy goes west. He had some stories to relate about those shows, noting it was a good time to be in Halifax with a British accent and a guitar, one week before the Rolling Stones were set to entertain 60,000 fans. Free beer and ticket requests from everyone. In Ottawa he knew he’d have a good time ‘cause there’s nothing looser than a civil servant on a weekend break from a mind-numbing and soul-sucking job working for the man. (I paraphrase.) The fans in Montreal were…well, if you don’t think Quebec is a ‘distinct’ society, you haven’t visited. They still smoke in church there. Little ashtrays in the confessional. To honour their uniqueness Billy played the entire Life’s a Riot w/ Spy V Spy EP in the second encore.
There’s an opening act. Some kid called Seth Lakemanwho has a fiddle and a little guitar. Four songs, maybe five. He was 20 minutes late taking the stage. Don’t think his set lasted that long. Didn’t suck though. Kind of like a sober Ashley MacIsaac in pants. Real east-coast, Celtic feel to his songs.
Billy is a tad late coming on, for reasons he’ll explain later. Off the top he reaches all the way back to his first EP from 1983, to gives us the wonderful ‘To Have and To Have Not’. A cautionary tale about the clampdown. A familiar story of closed doors and a rite of passage for all young males and females. Next to the unlimited potential of a newborn babe there is nothing more overrated than a university degree. Especially in a society that judges the outside before they evaluate the inside. Just a slight hint of the difficulties to be faced by generations of youth: where have all the good jobs gone? (“The factories are closing..”)
Fearing the ‘jobs’ part of the previous message may have been too hard to suss out Billy follows up with a no-brainer. NPWA (No Power Without Accountability) opens with the bleak landscape of missing jobs and cheap, exploitable labour in third world markets. It’s a song from 2001 and 18 years later the corpocracy is still the root of the problem. It’s a monster song, covering everything from downsizing, job security in the global market, the IMf and it’s corporate based tax policies (I mean shouldn’t Mexico be trying to raise taxes until they at least have SOME public services?), and the placebo we call “one man-one vote”, democracy.
Chat time, and we get more than a few of these. Normally I’m not big on between song talk. John Prine I can take. Ray Davies should shut up and play the songs. Enjoyed Buck 65’s chatter this summer. Leonard Cohen…more songs. Billy Bragg is a wonder to behold when he goes off on a ‘rant’. Lot’s of self-effacing comedy, empathy for others and some biting sarcasm. He’s a captivating speaker, even if you have to listen carefully to separate the accent from the words. He does play the “hello Cleveland” card a bit, some of the stage patter is orchestrated, meant to receive a cheap cheer. “Rowdy fuckers for a Sunday night!” would seem, on the surface, to be an acknowledgement of an enthusiastic crowd on a night normally reserved for prayers and cross-dressing. Except he gave the same ‘hey-o’ to the Friday night crowd in Ottawa. Not sure why, there’s nothing particularly surprising about rowdy Friday nighters. Give the man a break though, he’s gonna be up there for two hours, he has to bring something scripted. He tells the crowd there’s no sense in doing that ‘slow clap’ thing to make the artist come out faster since his pre-show ritual involves not drugs or meditation, but a good shit. No amount of clapping is going to make him hurry.
Into the ‘time capsule’ and exit in 1983. A Lover Sings, another cautionary tale about shooting your wad too early. I don’t know who Teresa and Steve are but they’d best stay away from the apple tree. In the words of Bruce Springsteen, “love’s like that, sure it is.” Underneath the tale of love gone out the window there is some excellent detail, amazing what stays with you forever. How it’s the small things you remember when the big thing blows up.
While tuning his lone guitar so he can play it sweet, Billy regales us with more opinions about global warming and possibility of polar bears tramping right down Yonge St to the heart of Toronto. A piece on the current Liberal leadership race where a neo-con in sheep’s clothing is trying to usurp the mantle. (He’s up against a silk-stocking Socialist trying to steal power from the other side of the spectrum. I’m hoping for a long bloody battle, not caring who wins.) Gotta love this about Billy, he may succumb to the odd industry trick to get a cheer but he absolutely respects the cultures he visits and does his best to be somewhat conversant on local issues. He speaks a bit about his book and the fear of being labeled an “intellectual”. A label not likely to stick. He’s nowhere near stuffy enough to be a Brit, never mind an intellectual.
Back farther into the time machine, back to the late 1500’s for a medley of John Barleycorn, an old English folk ballad that was revised as late as Robert Burns’ 1782 poem, and Billy’s own English, Half-English. This song speaks to the new book that addresses “Englishness” and what it means. It’s a cultural war being fought in the UK, it’s been fought for hundreds of years. Seems like the Welsh, Irish and Scots may prevail in the short-run, though the wave of immigration is relentless and what you see in the big cities now will soon enough be seen in the rural communities in time. It’s neither good, nor bad. It is just a fact of life on this little blue ball on which we live. What is required though, is a less homogeneity and a little more tolerance for others. During the introduction he tells us his first sense of being "English" came when he heard two Jewish kids from New York sing a song about Scarborough Fair. He's a closet S&G fan! By songs end he’s totally deconstructed English society, by halves, right down to their Lebanese patron saint, George and his three lions.
St George gets Billy off on a long ramble about patron saints, multiple jobs and hockey. You’d have to hear it to believe it. Suffice it to say lions are more impressive than carrots and who wouldn’t kill to be the patron saint of Barcelona?
He introduces a new song, Farm Boy, noting it’s debut in Montreal, where he figured himself safe ‘cause they were less likely to understand the words. Evocative of Dylan’s John Brown in that the soldier sees himself in his enemy, just another farmer. It’s a song about a boy sent to do a company’s job and the longing for the only thing that matters…a home to go back to.
Like Soldiers Do speaks to the seemingly never-ending cycle of war associated with empire. I’m not crystal clear on the references but my ‘best guess’ is the line about “advance(ing) across poppy fields” might refer to the Warizistan War of 1936 between England and Afghanistan. Some babies never learn, eh? This song was written in 1983, I think Billy would be amused at his prescience. Well, maybe ‘amused’ isn’t the right word.
Roadie brings out a second cup of tea for Billy and he finds himself lost inside an hilarious story about his previous job as a goat herder. The story gets downright raunchy as we visit the mating habits of the male goat. You see, it’s the goat pheromones that attract the she-goats. It’s the method of application that makes the story salacious. It just gets ruder and funnier until it’s shut down with the admonition to the tapers that they can roll their tapes back to omit that part. Wouldn’t think of it.
Greetings to the New Brunette (Shirley) sees our protagonist locked in an age old battle between the angry young man and choices that have to be made. Growin’ up ain’t easy, impressing parents even more difficult but there’s nothing like talkin’ about babies to take the romance out of a post-pubescent poke.
Bragg takes the opportunity to lay an obsequious greeting on the city, claiming it’s a ‘home away from home’ for his crew. It’s made somewhat less so by the news he has family here. The next song is dedicated to Uncle Jesse. From 1991’s Don’t Try This at Home we get a childs POV on death. Lovely light little ditty.
Upfield, released in 1996 backed by ‘Thatcherites’, is as close as you’ll ever come to seeing a ‘reborn socialist’. A tug of will between a doubting pagan and some angels. I got no freakin’ idea what this is about. Nice song though, jaunty melody.
A pretty talkative Bragg moves into another ramble, starting with a story about his March trip to SXSW and the laryngitis that struck him as they headed towards Minneapolis. His manager, in an attempt to console him, assures Billy “no one comes to hear you sing.” He got through those dates with the help of his back up band, The Blokes and his hand puppet. Even found himself sans guitar in Chicago, free to express himself through the medium of dance. A failed experiment it seems. This rant falls prey to the ever-present goat jokes and Billy flings the little toy off stage, hoping to excise the demons. It was futile.
He moves into his “Johnny Clash” rap before delivering what can be called Pinball Prison Blues or Folsom Wizard. Roadie is out to switch the guitar over to his ‘Clash’ amp and we get a song in progress with the working title “Old Clash Fan’s Fight Song”. Some fun stuff.
Another talk that champions the democratic success of the new medium, high-speed internet, that gives us more entertainment in swinging cats on YouTube than network television can deliver. Bragg seems to take some pleasure in the fact bands are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on their music videos only to see them pirated in a blurry mpeg. We’ve spent the last couple days watching animal videos. Curse you Billy Bragg!
I’m having a great time and I’ve only heard 1 (one) song I know, To Have and To Have Not. No shit. I mean I like Billy, always did, right from the outset, but I’ve only got so much appetite for thinking. Saw him in 1993 (I think) at the Ontario Place Forum and thoroughly enjoyed that show. I’m back here tonight because I know it’s gonna be great entertainment value for the dollar. Can’t wait for the encores.
The Saturday Boy is another great tune about that time of life few men can leave behind…the foggy years in their teens when they didn’t know what was happenin’ or why. Some great lyrics in here: “’cause she lied to me with her body you see/ I lied to myself about the chances I’d wasted” and “in the end it took me a dictionary/ to find the meaning of unrequited.” Heavy emotions directed at a girl too young to shave her legs.
Billy turns a slam against James Blunt (“our revenge for Lenny Kravitz”) into a promotional piece for his book and a sermon on not becoming cynical. He follows with another new song, I Keep Faith, a testament to his belief that cynicism can be defeated. It’s a kinder, gentler, Billy.
Now we’re back to 1649 for the story of the True Levellers, or the Diggers. Socialists well before their time and the most extreme amongst their kind. A history lesson in song. Still, sad how nobody’s learning anything.
Ontario, Quebec and Me is a little nod of appreciation to this wonderful part of the world we’re lucky enough to live in, and the good times he’s had.
Familiar chords of the second song I know, Waiting for the Great Leap Forward, are welcome but not really necessary. What is unwelcome, and unnecessary, is the artless alterations made to the song. It’s a cheap laugh tossing in Rumsfeld’s name. You’re preaching to the choir here, they can make the connection themselves. It’s good for a giggle but not much more, there’s been plenty of fun all across the comedy spectrum tonight and more still to come. I wouldn’t give those f*cks the pleasure of being inside a work as good as “Leap Forward”. To all the PNACians, get offa my cloud.
Still, I love this song and we do get a number of straight verses, enough to redeem it.
REVISED opinion on Leap Forward. After listening to this again in the car I realize this version was a master stroke. Bragg managed to incorporate a number of jokes from this evenings show as well as some references to his own wealth, his aging and even Canadian Idol. A final coup de grace was the inclusion of “bombed back to the Stone Age”, a news item that only came to light in the days preceeding this concert. He was referencing the Prime Minister of Pakistan relating this threat almost at the same time it was airing on CBS’ 60 Minutes. At the risk of abrogating the ‘fair usage’ copyright rule let me transcribe the lyrics here:
It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline (John & Jackie Kennedy)
But on the Che Guevara highway filling up with gasoline
Little Donald Rumsfeld spies a rich lady who's crying
Over luxury's disappointment, so he walks over and he's trying
To sympathise with her but he thinks that he should warn her
To be prepared to be bombed back into the Stone Age
(Ya, how’s that touch you? Ya fancy that? Maybe back into the Ice Age even. Who knows.)
In the former Soviet Union the citizens demand
As to why they are still the target of Strategic Air Command?
And they shake their fists in anger and respectfully suggest
We take the money from our missiles and spend it on our hospitals instead.
Mixing Pop and Politics thye ask me what the use is
I offer them my acupuncturists and my masseusses
While looking down the corridor
Out to where my ego is waiting
I'm looking for the New World Order
(You know where Canada is in the New World Order?
Just behind Great Britain right up the asshole of the United States of America)
Jumble sales are organized, all my mates have got fat
Even after all this time you can still swing round a cat
You can be active with the activists
Or sleep in with the media
While you're waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
Oh, one leap forward, two leaps back
Will YouTube give MTV the sack ?
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
Well here comes the future and you can't run from it
If you've got a wesite I want to be on it
Can I be your friend? Can I say it with a smiley? Ya
In a perfect world we'd all sing in tune
But this is reality not fucking Canadian Pop Idol
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards, ya
It's a mighty long way down rock 'n roll
From Top of the Pops to diggin’ a hole
You're Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
So join the struggle while you may
The Revolution is just an ethical haircut away
When you’re waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
Is that some fun, or what?
The acoustic encore is an homage to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, two giants upon whose shoulders Bragg is proud to stand. First Guthrie song is the story of Hans Eisler, German composer who told the HUAC to go fuck themselves. Got deported for it. The song address whether Woody would stand, sit or run. Good campfire tune though. The second Guthrie song is a dark tale of failing farms and little hope, Black Wind Blowing. A dust-bowl song about how funny a man feels when all he knows is hanging by a thread. Ummm, time to lighten up perhaps?
Toilet paper jokes and slide guitars oughta do it. Billy has stolen the melody from Leadbelly’s Bourgeois Blues and come up with another topical song, Bush War Blues. This is more Phil Ochs than Bob Dylan but it’s much preferred to altering cherished lyrics to no advantage.
For the second encore we’re back to electric and back to the first EP. I’d told the wife it was unlikely we’d hear The Milkman of Human Kindness and it was kind of like whistling in the dark…a preemptive strike against disappointment. Something about this simple song that just pulls you in, the sentiment perhaps, the melody for sure and that voice just right for this plaintive wail. What a treat.
Sexuality falls prey to another goat joke, we get the ‘beastiality’ version. Not totally marred though Billy does say “I ruined it didn’t I?” before he finds his way back on track. No matter, this is a smile inducer in any shape or form.
Show closes with an extended audience sing-a-long to A New England. And the audience was very good. I usually rate ‘sing-a-longs’ right next to ‘clapping’ and ‘shouted requests’ on the list of silly things that happen at concerts but it worked well tonight. Billy helped them along with a few guitar queues but they were never shy about taking the song over. We get enough verses from the artist we paid to see, plus a new verse, making this another treat at the end of a superb evenings entertainment. Billy shouts out "We're going to do a verse for Kirsty MacColl!" before injecting the two verses she added to the song on her recording:
"My dreams were full of strange ideas
My mind was set despite your fears
But other things got in the way
I never asked that boy to stay
Once upon a time at home
I sat beside the telephone
Waiting for someone to pull me through
When at last it didn't ring I knew it wasn't you"
Kinda makes a full evening of it. Thank you Billy Bragg, looking forward to the next trip through and whatever incarnation you bring.