Billy Bragg not all doom and gloom at the Commodore

Billy Bragg at the Commodore Ballroom, 9/30/17

Photo by Sharon Steele
Photo by Sharon Steele

A mic stand, an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, two small amps, and two bottles of Fiji Water were all that stood beneath a spotlight at the Commodore Ballroom before Billy Bragg took the stage last Saturday.

The folk-punk from East London marched onstage with purpose and wasted no time getting the show started with “To Have and to Have Not”. From there, he informed us that over the course of three shows in Toronto the previous Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (in celebration of the legendary Horseshoe Tavern’s 70th anniversary), he found himself “whacking through the undergrowth” of his back catalogue. This, he warned, meant we were going to hear “the odd B-side which means less of your favourite songs, so fuck you.” 

Bragg also debuted “Saffiyah Smile” (out this Friday), the title of which references Saffiyah Khan whose viral photo from an English Defence League protest last April will become iconic in time. Inspired by Woody Guthrie, the song took on fascism with humour calling out the “Elmer Fudd”s of the world and “cosplay Nazis”.

Bragg spoke with the same brash sense of humour that colours many of his left-wing anthems when he took the piss out of everyone ranging from audience members for having their hands in their pockets to Radiohead for not utilizing ther projection screens at their Saturday night headlining Glastonbury set once upon a time. 

Of course, Bragg took aim at more insidious, obvious foe too. He dropped the humour in his invectives against Islamophobia, proponents of Brexit, cynicism (which he called “the greatest enemy of change”), and more. He dedicated “Accident Waiting to Happen” to Donald Trump and took on the idea of a “crisis in masculinity” with “Handyman Blues”: “Time to stop being do-it-yourself demons. Put down the power tools, and come out to the shade,” Bragg said, exasperated by displays of male posturing and arrogance.

One of the night’s most resonant moments came during Bragg’s haunting cover of Guthrie’s “Hangknot, Slipknot”. Sadly, the lynchings Guthrie sang about so many decades ago are all too relatable to race crimes still being committed today, often by law enforcement. “It seems like still, no one is held accountable for the murder of African Americans,” Bragg truthfully pointed out.

Surprisingly, climate change caused the only contention that Saturday night. As Bragg began criticizing the lack of priority US and UK election campaigns give to climate change, an audience member shouted, “It’s bullshit, Billy!” The crowd immediately rained boos upon the lone dissenter. “It’s science! Fuck!” someone else yelled back. But Bragg cut everyone off. “Hey! That’s my job!” he said dutifully before segueing into “King Tide”. “There’s a line in this song for you, sir, and I’ll give you a nod when it turns up.”

Repudiations aside, Bragg was positive and even hopeful, overall. He touted British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn who “wiped the floor with the Tories.” “It’s not all doom and gloom!” Bragg declared amongst rousing applause before “Siren Song”. “Please don’t give up on us yet,” he beseeched on his country’s behalf.

Bragg left us with a powerful message: As musicians, whether playing political songs or personal songs, “empathy is our currency,” and “there is power in a union.” He reminded us that “solidarity is what scares the shit out of them, so let’s finish with a solidarity song!” He followed this rally-call with “Power and Union”. Fans joined him in singing every word, clapping, and raising their fist in the air.

Billy Bragg’s boldfaced, whip-smart, and empowering performance at the Commodore showed that sometimes, one person and one guitar is all it takes to awaken us politically. But as he said, that’s his job. He’s doing his part, song by song, town by town, year by year. (30 years to be exact.) But the real heavy lifting is up to each of us, and it’s time we all do our part.

Set list:

  1. “To Have and to Have Not”
  2. “A Lover Sings”
  3. “Little Time Bomb”
  4. “The Sleep of Reason”
  5. “Accident Waiting to Happen”
  6. “Slipknot” (Woody Guthrie cover)
  7. “Upfield”
  8. “The Warmest Room”
  9. “King Tide”
  10. “Handyman Blues”
  11. “Sexuality”
  12. “Must I Paint You a Picture?”
  13. “The Saturday Boy”
  14. “Saffiyah Smiles”
  15. “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”
  16. “Milkman of Human Kindness”
  17. “Why We Build the Wall”
  18. “I Keep Faith”
  19. “There is Power in a Union”

Encore:

  1. “The Times They Are a Changin’” (Bob Dylan reinterpretation)
  2. “Greetings to the New Brunette (Shirley)”
  3.  “A New England”
Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu

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