Billy Bragg returned to Cambridge Junction J1 for three sold-out and different shows; featuring his current set, only songs from his first three albums and for tonight songs from the next three: Workers Playtime (1988), Don’t Try This at Home (1991) and William Bloke (1996).
Opening with his most well-known track ‘Sexuality’ the long set (with no support) was punctuated with musings, reminiscences, and of course specific political campaigning given the proximity of the general election. The three featured LPs contain plenty of ballads of break-up, make-up, disappointment and contentment but always laced with dry wit and a smart turn of phrase.
Although this was the umpteenth time I have seen him live there had not been enough room in his sets for many of these songs – so definitely a treat to hear the wordplay of ‘The Short Answer’ (‘…between Marx and marzipan in the dictionary there was Mary….’), the resignation of ‘She’s Got A New Spell’ (‘….she’s gone to get the cat in The next thing I know she’s mumbling in Latin….’) and the gentle melody and sentiment of ‘Brickbat’ (‘…I steal a kiss from you in the supermarket I walk you down the aisle, you fill my basket…’).
‘Valentine’s Day’ and ‘The Space Race’ are both ‘over’ in two of his most affecting and thoughtful songs. The politico-folk of ‘Thatcherites’ and an unaccompanied ‘Tender Comrade’ make their message clear and you cannot fail to be uplifted by his performance of ‘There is Power in a Union’ and the topically adapted ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’.
After two emotionally-involving hours there was a real surprise bonus – the ultimate UK road-movie soundtrack and one of my favourites ‘A13, Trunk Road to the Sea’ was the final song…
Home Page – Billy Bragg at the BBC
When support act Seán McGowan took to the stage, the great majority of the sold-out Junction audience had already arrived and he seemed pleasantly overwhelmed but confidently rose to the occasion. His fast and furious protest songs feature the everyday but essential; minimum wage and insecure employment, petty crime and poor decisions. There is a slower, considered emotional undercurrent in the longer ‘Millbrook Road’ (a thoroughfare in his home town of Southampton). ‘No Show’ and ‘Costa Del Solution’ from his new mini-LP (with wage-packet sleeve) went down well. It was a blistering performance and by the end the audience in J1 were totally won over. As he and Billy might say, ‘..the boy done good..’.
I have seen Billy Bragg many times over the years as solo, duo and with a band; tonight he was accompanied on some songs by multi-talented CJ Hillman, ‘UK Americana instrumental musician of the year’ and making sterling contributions on pedal steel and second guitar, including stepping-up with some Johnny Marr jangle on ‘Sexuality’, the opening song of the evening. Billy can pace a set as well as anybody and he has so much material to draw on, in nearly two hours there was time for early classics ‘Milkman Of Human Kindness’, ‘Man In the Iron Mask’, ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and many more, played on his distinctive green Burns guitar.
Interspersed with the familiar was the new EP reflecting the current affairs of the day. The optimistic ‘Saffiyah Smiles’, environmental ‘King Tide And The Sunny Day Flood’ and the poignant ‘Full English Brexit’ were put into context by Billy’s introductions and he also reflected how many of his early song themes had come around again. ‘There Is Power In A Union’ and ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’ are always going to ignite his loyal audience and we never tire of ‘A New England’, the perfect ending to this brilliant show.
From Billy Bragg’s website….”In March 2016 Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, guitars in hand, boarded a Los Angeles-bound train at Chicago’s Union Station looking to reconnect with the culture of American railroad travel and the music it inspired. Winding along 2,728 miles of track over four days, the pair recorded classic railroad songs in waiting rooms and at trackside while the train paused to pick up passengers.”
Now touring the resulting LP, the show begins with the intrepid duo performing ‘Railroad Bill’, ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’, ‘Waiting For A Train’ and other timeless Americana, along with plenty of anecdote and musings in the week following the American election. Their voices blend well, with Billy Bragg’s deeper tones and musically Joe Henry adds some extra guitar flourishes which he then showcases more in his five song solo section.
After the interval it is Billy’s turn for a solo spot, ‘Between The Wars’, ‘Help Save The Youth Of America’ (of course!), ‘Power Of The Union’, classics all. (Unfortunately no ‘A13, Trunk Road To The Sea’ which may have fitted the travelogue mood?!)
As Billy and Joe were reunited for the rest of the railway album it is clear how much of a modern message is carried by the words of these old songs (helped by the excellent sound quality in the Apex). Towards the end of the show we also had a gorgeous cover of the classic ballad ‘Gentle On My Mind’ and following a trawl through the songs of Bob Dylan they had decided on a version of one of my favourites ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’.
Contemplative, poignant, downbeat but still optimistic and celebratory, the audience left having witnessed a unique evening of performance.