Report: Billy Bragg Live in Asheville


The Bard of Barking hits
the stage of N.C. venue The Orange Peel on September 17, touching hearts and
probing minds with equal gusto. All wankers welcome.


By Fred Mills


Perhaps the least-remarked about aspect of British
singer-songwriter Billy Bragg is how deeply romantic a singing voice he can
deploy when he wants to – and here, I don’t mean as an affectation. Once you
notice it, it’s always there, even when he’s hurtling off onto a vitriol-laced
screed about some unsavory governmental goings-on (more on that in a sec). But there he was, early in his set at Asheville,
NC, venue The Orange Peel, lovingly caressing the lines of his 1988 gem “The
Price I Pay,” and as I looked around the room, I swear I saw people hugging
each other just a little bit closer, and in the instance of a forty-something
couple, the lady was gently laying her head on her man’s shoulder, her eyes
narrowed dreamily as if to let Bragg’s rich tones wash over and caress her.


Yet barely a song or two later Bragg was letting loose a
right ripping yarn, concerning a stop at a Cracker Barrel, a visit to Kentucky’s
notorious Creation Museum, and recent Delaware Senate nominee Christine
O’Donnell’s self-appointed mission to save America from the scourge of
masturbation, as his lengthy spoken intro to the equally memorable (and by some
measures, also rather romantic) “Greetings to the New Brunette” (from ’86, known
to fans sometimes simply as “Shirley”). No mass cuddling in the audience this
time; everybody was too busy clutching their sides and hoisting beer bottles in




This, then, is the central contradiction of The Bard Of Barking:
is he an ol’ romantic softie trapped in the body of a crusty, combative
socialist, or is he the last of the great stand-up troubadours, crucially aware
that in the era of bloggers and Twitter, his is a dying craft but he doesn’t
really have anything better to do with his time? Ah, that’s where we, the fans,
come in – and as long as there’s still a handful of us out here, Billy Bragg
will have a place in our collective heart and plenty of opportunities to do
what he does best.


You, gentle readers, need no introduction to Bragg; suffice
to say that tonight in Asheville he was in the home stretch of his latest North
American tour in support of 2008’s Anti- Records album Mr. Love & Justice, a tour that has seen him performing in
front of thousands at outdoor festivals (one of my fellow BLURT correspondents
caught him a week earlier at Seattle’s Bumbershoot, in fact) as well as for
relatively intimate crowds such as comprises the Orange Peel gig (which
featured the right-hand third of the venue floor devoted to seating and the
rest available to those who wanted to stand and party – the cuddlers and the
hoisters, respectively, one supposes). A Bragg show generally doesn’t vary too
much from one tour to the next, other than the setlists and the man’s topical
concerns; you go to see Billy Bragg, and unless it’s billed as a full-band
affair (say, with The Blokes), you know you’ll get a few songs featuring him on
an acoustic guitar, a few on an electric guitar, and a steady stream of
invective ‘n’ patter to keep things lively in between the tunes.



Non-Bragg fans probably need not apply, in that regard. A Bragg
show isn’t ideally tailored for the unconverted. That said, there was another
interesting “audience moment” that took place in my vicinity, about midway into
the show. Throughout the evening, Bragg had been dropping the stray disparaging
remarks about the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, the above-mentioned Delaware
Republican, and the like. Tea Partiers in particular appear to have gotten
under Bragg’s skin – several times he mockingly referred to them as “Tea
Baggers” (tell the kids to leave the room and then look up the term), and it’s
clear that he’s not down with the bizarre Libertarian-Conservative hybrid that
is becoming the Tea Party ideology, and at one point he compared the Tea Party
to England’s British Nationalist Party. This isn’t particularly surprising
considering Bragg’s socialist bent; several recent editorials in the mainstream
media have made it clear that “socialism” is the Tea Party’s big bogeyman.


However, even I was caught offguard when I heard the woman
standing in front of me lean into her date’s ear and say something to the
effect of, “He probably doesn’t realize that there might be quite a few of us
here tonight.” Billy Bragg has fans who are also Tea Partiers? I have no idea;
yet given the number of disaffected boomers and youth who have been gravitating
to the Tea Party of late, and given that those people are probably also music
fans, it’s entirely possible. I’ve been at Steve Earle shows in the past when
he railed against George Bush, the invasion of Iraq, etc. and witnessed more than
a few pissed-off, presumably “patriotic,” punters willing to stand up and
heckle him.




All that aside, it was a night of bloody good fun. One of
the aforementioned Tea Party salvos was launched shortly after a Bragg minder
brought out a steaming cup of tea, leading directly into, appropriately enough,
“Tomorrow’s Gonna Be A Better Day,” which Bragg smartly augmented with a
whistling solo (“ironic whistling,” he announced). A rap about the recession
and the current state of the economy was followed by a spot-on reading of Woody
Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home.” Switching from his electric to a gorgeous
acoustic guitar bearing Rastafarian-colored lettering that read “STRUMMER” and
“THIS GUITAR KILLS TIME,” Bragg did a strummy segment that was part-Dylan,
part-Neil Young, the highlight being a cover of Long Ryders/Coal Porters frontman
Sid Griffin’s song “Everywhere,” originally about the internment of
Japanese-Americans during and after WWII, and here the culmination of an
extended monologue about prejudice, bigotry and stereotypes. (To that end, he
spun an blackly humorous faux-anecdote about being on the London tube one day and eyeing an individual
get on who was “clearly” an American – because he had perfect, shining teeth of
course – and starting to freak out when the person reached stealthily inside
his jacket to extract… drumroll please… not a gun, but a toothbrush! Ba-da-boom!)


And it occurred: Here is this loud-mouthed Brit, touring the
States on the eve of what is gearing up to be the most contentious election
season in memory, and amid all the rampant punditry, his snap insights and
casual observations are more cogent than those put forth by 99% of U.S. commentators.
He’s doggedly liberal, but it seems to be less that his politics are of a
liberal bent, and more that he simply abhors hypocrisy in its myriad forms
regardless of the actual politics the hypocrite espouses. Hell, he even took
President Obama to task a couple of times. I’d vote for the damn bloke if he
moved to the States, got naturalized and ran for office purely on that basis
alone. It’ll never happen, but I can dream, can’t I?




And with that realization, I put down my pen and my camera
and just enjoyed the rest of the show – Bragg alternating between the raging
and the serene, between the comic and the deadly serious; expounding one minute
on America’s potential greatness in the world with Mr. Love & Justice standout “I Keep Faith” and then turning
around and making more than a few eyes turn misty when he eased into his
eternal anthem “Levi Stubbs’ Tears.” Hell, he even incited a mass singalong
with the insistent, jangly “There Is Power in the Union,”
and you can take that little bit of social subversion anyway you want to.


“You cannot change the world by singing songs,” Bragg
insisted, towards the end of the show. “It’s what you do afterwards.” Well,
sir, I partly agree with that. But I feel compelled to add that unless someone
like you gets up there and sings the songs in the first place, there won’t be
any work left for the rest of us to complete.




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