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Billy Bragg took to the stage at the beautiful and acoustically fantastic Berklee Performance Center at around 8pm Sunday night. Flanked by a full band for about 2/3rds of his set, Bragg played a career spanning set that lasted a good two hours. Bragg’s politically charged reputation proved true as he held court on everything from Margaret Thatcher’s death (his reaction – “YIPEEEE!”), fascists , Winnipeg (“The Texas of the North”), people claiming he sold out and turned country, universal health care, Nick Cave’s hair, socialism, the British National Party, being Billy Bragg, gay rights, and, of course, Woody Guthrie.
Though a sort of looking back toward Mr. Guthrie’s time for evidence of history repeating, the show started very much with an eye toward the future. Kim Churchill was the opener, and though the Aussie took the stage with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, he wasn’t necessarily a typical folk singer-songwriter, as I’m sure most of the crowd imagined. He also said chimes, a bass drum (played with barefeet), and effects pedals. Oh, my, did he have effects pedals. Resembling a kind a 21st century version of Dick van Dyke’s one man band in Mary Poppins, Churchill, a slight and sinewy Aussie lad, created a massive wall of whoops, wails, samples, beats, and some standard strumming and singing as well.
And then it was time for the man himself, Billy Bragg, to take the stage. He somehow manages in his live show to give off the impression that not only is he the coolest guy in the room; he also genuinely cares about every single member of the audience. It’s an environment that I’ve never experienced at any other concert and I really doubt I ever will again. Whereas most performers, if they went on tangents that stretched to almost five minutes between every song, might be slagged as blowhards, what Bragg had to say was almost as good as the songs themselves. He doesn’t force his opinion on the audience so much as let them see life and politics through his own eyes, grant them permission into a place most other performers guard like crazy. This intimacy was only amplified when, about halfway through the set, he dismissed his other band members for a stretch of solo songs. As an audience member I felt engaged in some of the most important dialogues to be had in today’s world, yet only Bragg had the microphone. Which was fine – it’s not like anyone in the crowd would have picked a different spokesman.
But if, for some reason, that doesn’t seem that appealing, rest assured the songs still seem as fresh and relevant as they ever had. Throughout a set that leaned on his latest album, the twangy Tooth and Nail, old favorites were sprinkled in such as “The Milkman of Human Kindness,” “Tank Park Salute,” “Sexuality,” “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” As well as a handful of tracks from his 1998 collaboration with Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, a collection of unused Woody Guthrie lyrics that they put music to, including the beautiful “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.” That’s the spirit of folk music after all, isn’t it – to address human issues that will always be as timeless as they are universal? To his credit, Bragg rejected the label of being a folk musician, saying that he’s never really been a part of the tradition. With typical wit, Bragg also thanked the people who consider him a folk artist, as it’s “the only genre in which you are actively encouraged to grow old.”
On a night where many heavy issues were tackled, the emotion that stuck with me and my fellow audience members was one of compassion. “The only true enemy is cynicism,” Bragg said. “Cynicism within ourselves, that nothing will ever change.” After this show, Boston was left with about 1,215 converts to the Church of Billy Bragg.