Billy Bragg at Somerville Theatre

For a musician who has been on the folk, punk, and leftist scene intermittently throughout the past thirty-five years, Billy Bragg’s message remains remarkably consistent. At the Somerville Theatre this past Thursday evening, new and old fans alike rallied around the force of his personality and the still-strong and completely current political messages that come with his music. He’s your favorite singer, your quirky professor, and your strong-willed best friend who maybe speaks a little too loudly all rolled into one inspired musician, and fans still adore him for it. Bragg took the stage right on time with no opening act and no nonsense—“Yes, I’m opening for myself now,” he laughed, noting that Somerville was the largest venue he had played on this particular tour in support of his 2011 album Fight Songs.

This particular performance was a unique one in structure—in acknowledgement of the Woody Guthrie centennial this year, Bragg devoted the first half of his two-hour set to the man who had influenced his own music to such a significant degree. The influence is most prominent, of course, in the famed Mermaid Avenue sessions with Wilco in the early 2000s with the blessing of the Guthrie family, and Bragg reflected on the recording sessions quite a bit during the forty-five minutes of Guthrie tunes, musings on the man’s life, and Bragg’s process on giving the artist’s lyrics new life through alternate melodies. After Guthrie’s passing, thousands of song lyrics were discovered as a part of his estate with no musical notation—the family bequeathed several of these songs to Bragg, and he described discovering melodies for them anywhere from his brooding study to an Irish butter commercial.

The set list was no typical “This Land is Your Land” fare, however. Playing lesser known Guthrie tracks (relatively simple to come across as the artist wrote 3000 in his lifetime) like “The Unwelcome Guest”, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”, “Don’t You Marry”, “Go Down to the Water”, and “Another Man’s Done Gone”. Several of these featured melodies reimagined by Bragg himself, and the artist made sure to remind the audience to “challenge the stereotypical image of the small guy as only Bob Dylan’s inspiration and ‘This Land is Your Land’.” He mentioned that Guthrie fell in love with electric instruments toward the end of his life and would occasionally note the tempo for a lyric as “supersonic boogie”; “Cherish ‘This Land is Your Land’,” Bragg reminded us, “but it’s only one end of the spectrum.” To make his point, he concluded the Guthrie portion of the show with a dirty limerick about a bear’s nether regions his hero had penned to rancorous audience applause.

Fifteen minutes later, Bragg returned one acoustic lighter, and strapped in to his electric with his signature political flair. Opening with “Socialism of the Heart”, the artist launched into the latest in American politics—this particular night, the upholding of Obamacare was fresh in everyone’s minds. He offered this reminder: “The true enemy of anyone who wants to make this world a better place is cynicism, and the greatest cynicism we have to fear is our own… so encourage. Encourage with the toe of your boot if you have to.” He launched into a several song set from Fight Songs, many of which revolve around specific events in political culture such as the criminal conviction of Rupert Murdoch and the taking down of British tabloids and the ironic tune “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be a Better Day”, as well as sprinkling in a few old favorite the audience when crazy for. Finishing off with “Levi Stubb’s Tears” and a rousing chorus of “Power in a Union”, Bragg left the stage for all of thirty seconds before returning for an encore, smiling all the while. “I was about to take a piss until I heard your train whistle noises,” he laughs. “So I just ran right back up!”

He concluded the packed performance with a Guthrie tune and a Billy one—“I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore” struck a chord in Bragg’s voice as well as in the audience, and the crowd went nuts when he capped off the evening with “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards”. In the twenty-four years he’s been singing it since the tracks release on 1988s Worker’s Playtime, I’ve never heard the same version of the song twice. For every live show he performs, the lyrics remain similar to the original but fluid with the times; that evening’s performance featured conversational drops about workers’ unions, universal healthcare, and about Woody Guthrie himself. Before an extensive meet and greet, Bragg assured us, “It’s been four years since I’ve last visited Boston, but I promise it won’t be as long before next time!” We’re holding you to it, Billy Bragg.

By Jamie Loftus

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