The near sell-out crowd was a frothy-throated bunch, eager for a liftoff to their weekend. Billy Bragg must have felt that vibe flitting through the Vogue. Strolling out onto stage to the sounds of Joe Ely’s country classic, “Dallas”, Bragg set the tone for the night: “I’ve had a curry, a shower, a shit, it’s Friday… Let’s do this.”
With a setlist comprising a good chunk of the recently released Tooth & Nail, a healthy dose of Woody Guthrie covers, and a smattering of ‘classic Bragg’, the music on this night was tight and delivered with sure-handed finesse.
After declaring that the hipster goatee was dead, Bragg et al slammed into “No One Knows Nothing Anymore“, the standout single from Tooth. With nary a breath of a space, he asked the crowd, “Have I ever told you about Okfuskee?”, and as the crowd whooped (yours truly, for one) the band laid out the first Guthrie tune of the night, “Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key“.
Touring with the same band of firebrands that recorded Tooth, Bragg hit Vancouver, the second stop on the Canadian leg of the tour, for the first time since 2009. Bearded and grey-haired, the 55-year-old student of Punk wore a subdued red shirt and jeans – true workman’s attire. Politics mingled with humour, and compassion shared space with anger, in a two-hour set for a vibrant and eclectic mix of old and new school Bragg fans.
Bragg was in fine comic form, ripping on that other English act in town that night, ’80s pop duo OMD, several times throughout the set. “Bet they don’t mention me once,” he said with trademark drawl.
Revealing a bit about life on the road for his band, Bragg launched into a monologue about TV watching habits: how Breaking Bad is a favourite on the tour, and that the adventures of Walt and Jesse are to the English what Downton Abbey is to North Americans – a true depiction of how the other country lives. (Bragg admitted that Canadian TV gets no play in the UK; when he beseeched the crowd for some titles, he was showered with shouts of Kids in the Hall and Trailer Park Boys).
For a punker-busker, Bragg’s biggest claim to North American fame came via the Mermaid Avenue collaboration with Wilco. Like Joe Strummer and Bob Dylan before him, Bragg has a spiritual connection to Guthrie – a shared conscience that transcends music to an everyday living philosophy. By embracing Americana, Bragg opened himself to a wider audience, one responsive to his socialist musings. The trove of unreleased Guthrie tunes made for three classic albums with Wilco, and these songs have a significant spot in every Bragg setlist. The 75-year-old tune “I Ain’t Got No Home” is one of the most sadly relevant songs about the link between broken economies and broken homes.
Mixing humour with political commentary, Bragg balanced the emotions of the crowd, never getting too serious or too loose.
Commenting on a story of fascism and football – currently a hot topic in the UK – Bragg ran through Guthrie again (“All You Fascists”) and delivered a classic Braggism: “Living in a multicultural society means tolerating things you yourself don’t adhere to… like square-dancing.”
On Tooth, Bragg takes to task those who hector, who cloak themselves in smugness and ignorance, who deny their own prejudice. Chastising the likes of Richard Dawkins, Bragg said, “I could never be an atheist because I can’t imagine a world without gospel music.”
“Do Unto Others” was written to bring atheists and people of faith together in a collective of human compassion and empathy. While not as rousing as “There is Power in a Union” (which did not make the setlist), its message is no less empowering.
The middle portion of the show featured Bragg solo, switching from acoustic to electric and back again, rifling though his back pages for those appetizers the core audience wanted to hear: “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” and “The Milkman of Human Kindness” made the cut, but “A New England” was a curious omission. A delicate rendering of “Goodbye” was perhaps the most moving number all night.
The setlist was rounded out with some lesser-known numbers as treats for the diehards: “The Space Race is Over”, “My Flying Saucer” and “Valentine’s Day is Over”.
The set ended with a rousing combo: “There Will Be a Reckoning” and Bragg’s brush with ’90s pop stardom, “Sexuality“. It was standing room only at this point, and even fewer were sitting for the encore. By then, a queue was forming to meet the man after the show.
Opening on this night was the young, barefooted Aussie, Kim Churchill. Churchill made the most of an acoustic guitar, kick drum, pedals and a harmonica. Creating a sound I can only describe as psychedelic whale music, ocean-side blues or countrified Nick Drake, Churchill delivered an off-the-cuff set punctuated by a cover of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Kim Churchill. Remember that name. He’s going to impress a whole mess of people on this tour. Next year, he could very well be headlining the Vogue.