Thursday, June 19, 2008

Billy Bragg
with CR Avery opening
Sirius Satellite Radio Stage
Harbourfront Toronto ON

Billy Bragg was back in town for his almost yearly visit...he seldom misses Toronto and for that I'm grateful. He's touring his recently released album Mr. Love and Justice. He played I Keep Faith and Farm Boy when he was last through here in the fall of '06...tonight we got a little more of the record.

Billy's an easy act to see. You don't need to know a single song he's ever written because his stage-manner is so engaging he will win you over on affability and talent alone. You have to tune your ear to his accent and your sensibilities to his humour but once you cut through that it's almost like he's half-English.

As an added bonus we're mired in the midst of what seems like a couple months of steady rain. Late afternoon, tropical like stuff. Pay no heed to global warming. If that's not enough there's a cold front coming along with todays rain, which isn't conducive for a trip to the lake and an outdoor concert. There's only about 7 days a year you can sit by the lake, in the evening, and be's not one of them. The Harbourfront grounds are a wonderful testament to pork-barrel politics. 5 things to do, packed tightly into a mere 46 acres. It could use an internal transit system. It's been in constant development for most of my adult life...I think Trudeau bequeathed it to Toronto in exchange for an election victory back in 1972.

Billy brought an opener with him, CR Avery. From the content of his online press it seems he's an eclectic mix of Canadian folk and hip-hop. On the surface, that would be Buck 65's schtick. And I'm a big fan of the little guy from Nova Scotia, so CR's got his work cut out to win me over. I mean, how much room for folk-based-hip-hop do you have on your calendar? I was certainly hoping CR was better at performing than his web designer is at designing websites. When did it become cool to make a site non-user friendly? Some days I miss my Olivetti. Alas, not only is a quart of milk no longer a dollar (actually, it's not even a quart)...Olivetti's not a typewriter company anymore.

It turns out the worst mistake we made wasn't booking a lakeside show in June.
It wasn't even deciding to go in the middle of this monsoon season.
Can't even say it was taking the car into downtown Toronto at rush hour.
No, the worst decision we made was to wait until we got to Harbourfront to eat.
For a place that purports to be on the cutting edge of cultural and heritage promotion, they've certainly overlooked the culinary arts. Stay away from Lakeside Eats if you're in the area. Bag a lunch.

It's a cool and windy night, which explains the odd 'mic-boom' on the recording.
The rain held off, so we had that going for us.

CR Avery is one funky act. He opens the set with a vaguely familiar beat-box-with-the-mouth-on-the-mic chuk-a-chuk, chu-chuk, thing...accompanied by a few harmonica blasts. And something about Sylvie. Turns out it's a warped cover of a Leadbelly tune.

Avery moves behind the piano, starts tinkling away, and introduces the next song by saying; "this is a Blind Boy Grunt song", tinkle, tinkle, tinkle. I'm thinking...'ah, interesting, a blues cover, um hang on...' "he goes by a lot of names..." Hey wait, that's a Bob Dylan pseudonym. Unfortunately I'm unable to react in any manner 'cause I'm on duty as a human mic-stand. He's quickly into a sultry, Waits-like, rendition of Dylan's Oscar winning Things Have Changed.
He does a lot of great things to this song besides the Waits approach. He changes lyrics...normally not something I like done to a Dylan song, kind of like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Instead of Dylan's line, "There's a woman on my lap and she's drinking champagne, we get Avery's rewrite, "Just a woman that I can't seem to get off my miserable brain."

He also throws in a lovely tempo change that is in sync with the lyrics. What has been a rolling, bluesy tune abruptly shifts into a beatbox mix at the chorus, following the lines; "any minute now I'm expecting all hell to break loose." And it does.

Unforunately, he's taken on another affectation of Bob's...he drops verses. I'd be more pissed at this if it wasn't for the fact that Bob deconstructs his songs, both old and new, for live performance. In this version we lose the "wrong town/Hollywood" verse and the "i hurt easy" verse. We also get only 2 out of the 4 bridges, leaving the "first woman I meet/wheelbarrow" and the "Mr Jinx and Miss Lucy" bridges in the dust.
Both things work. It's a very inventive interpretation.
He does co-opt another Dylan trick...closing the song with the same couplet that opened it.

He had me at 'hello', but Avery still has some stuff to show off. He comes to the forward mic with some kind of bizarre rhythm twanging thing and launches into the spoken-word homage to Paul Simon's The Boxer, a poem called The Boxer Who Just Returned From London. Avery uses the 'beat-box-mouth-harp' combination to syncopate boxing gloves bouncing off faces and flashbulbs popping at a press conference. It's an engaging story, well delivered with a couple wonderful flips, most notably the build up to the "moment of clarity" and "I was knocked out in the 5th"
Not sure if Avery realized it but he follows a Dylan cover with a song that's copped another Dylan-reference... "there's always going to be a country music station playing somewhere softly certainly seems to be transtexualized from Dylan's Visions of Johanna: "In this room the heat pipes just cough/The country music station plays soft/But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off. The song closes with a couplet from the original; "I am just a poor boy and my story's seldom told."

Folk-Singer seems to be an open letter to Ron Sexsmith. A tongue-in-cheek look at aspiring folkies and their foibles. Actually, it's more stick-in-the-eye than tongue-in-cheek as Avery takes apart the pretentiousness of the coffeehouse circuit warblers. The critics ARE severe.

Love Song is an anti-love song, seeing as it's lines nearly all start with "don't you hate" followed by a laundry list of annoying things people saying "excuse me" after you've bumped some one, or congregating outside the exit door, or just plain reality tv. He uses a Herbie-Hancock type kee-tar to give this an epileptic seizure inducing beat.

More spoken word with a tribute to the last great leader in the Western World, Canada's own Pierre Elliot Trudeau. I'm a big fan of the man, so this was just a few minutes of Liberal circle-jerking.

His set ends with the closest thing we're getting to a 'real song' tonight, the hypnotically melodic, Door By The River, which actually rolls along lazily, just like a river...until the end.

Outstanding set! I came to have a fun evening with Billy Bragg and ended up with a new artist to track.

Here's the complete set list with some links to audio samples on a few songs:

Track 01 Sylvie (Leadbelly)
Track 02 Things Have Changed (Bob Dylan)
Track 03 The Boxer Who Just Returned From London (spoken word)
Track 04 talk - Grant Showbiz
Track 05 Folk-Singer
Track 06 Love Song
Track 07 Pierre Elliot Trudeau (spoken word)
Track 08 talk - I reside in Moosejaw
Track 09 Door By The River

Billy's set was the usual excellent stuff. I wrote about his 2006 show at The Danforth Music Hall in this piece.

There were some interesting occurences. The Sirius Stage is a small venue, fans sit on circular bench-seats with their back to the lake. If you had a partly cloudy day with a warm breeze blowing over the lake, from the south, it would be wonderful. We had a cold, rainy day with the wind bearing down from the northwest. The artist is looking out over the lake...a nice setting, if you're making gelatin. Billy was buzzed by a seagull and forgot the lyrics to The Warmest Room. At another point he was taken aback by the sight of a plane landing at the Island Airport. If you didn't know there was an airport there it would be a disconcerting sight. He spent an inordinate amount of time talking to a young kid in the audience. By his admission he tends not to allocate so much time to a fan who isn't drunk out of his mind. He delivered on his witty patois. I'm always impressed with his knowledge of current events in the region. Tonight he spoke in honour of the CAW action out in Oshawa...a gutsy attempt to save manufacturing jobs.

Here's Billy's set list with some sound samples as well.

Track 01 Intro
Track 02 This Guitar Says Sorry
Track 03 The Warmest Room
Track 04 talk - Thanks A Yacht
Track 05 Farm Boy
Track 06 The Myth of Trust
Track 07 talk - Fear of Stage Rush
Track 08 Mr Love & Justice
Track 09 talk - Throat Coat
Track 10 Greetings to the New Brunette
Track 11 talk - Heckling Kids
Track 12 I Almost Killed You
Track 13 talk
Track 14 The Space Race Is Over
Track 15 Sexuality
Track 16 talk
Track 17 For Maya/The Internationale
Track 18 Way Over Yonder In A Minor Key(Woody Guthrie/Billy Bragg)(thx for the info doug t.)
Track 19 Ain't Got No Home (Woody Guthrie)
Track 20 talk - Your Rights

Disc 2

Track 01 O Freedom
Track 02 Pinball Wizard
Track 03 Old Clash Fan Fight Song
Track 04 talk - Seeing the Clash
Track 05 I Keep Faith
Track 06 Power In A Union
Track 07 encore/talk
Track 08 Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards
Track 09 Sing Their Souls Back Home
Track 10 A New England

torrent running at dime



josh ward said...

first time seeing both billy, but reallly wasn't expecting a great opening act... yes, a little contrived, but i found myself forgetting more often than not...

you wouldn't happen to have a full version of folk-singer, would you? i couldn't help but compare it with mike birbiglia's guitar guy at the party song...

anyway, i'd love to hear it again, and don't see it on his albums

josh ward said...

oh... you actually have it here! thanks!

Ralph Alfonso said...

wow! amazing review! thank you Google Alerts for bringing me to you.

"Sylvie" (aka Bring A Little Water Sylvie among its many variations) is on the French version of CR's Magic Hour Sailor Songs cd (avail on iTunes France also).

Thank you for a great read and really interesting parsing of CR's set... I'm his label and I'm finding out stuff... hahahaaaa...

take care

Ralph Alfonso
Bongo Beat Records

Krewe Chief said...

and you thank CR for putting on a great show.
if i wasn't attending a wedding on Saturday I would have been in Kingston to catch another set.

Doug Tilley said...

This is a great review, but just wanted to point out that "Aint Nobody That Can Sing Like Me" is actually called "Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key."

And, I was at the show (and the earlier set at HMV that day) and Billy was in rare form. A chilly night, but totally worth the shakes.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review and you concert upload. I wasn't able to attend the Montreal show (I've try to see him when he's in town) , and I'm looking forward to listening to your recording