Billy Bragg sips tea from a cup that has ‘I Keep Faith’ written on it. Keeping faith, it seems, is the theme for the evening from this very English folk singer – who could also easily be described as a punk, a pop singer, an activist and a rock and roll star.
Tonight’s sold out show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire is the end of almost a year of touring that began in New Zealand back in January he tells us. For a man who turned 50 this year that’s not bad going. Although Billy admits that his biggest reason for celebrating his half century on the planet was actually the reminder that it was: “25 years since I’ve had to work for any other bastard”. Plain talking is, perhaps, one of the reasons Billy Bragg is so appreciated by such a diverse range of people.
This is certainly a man who’s chosen his own, often ‘untrendy’ path through music and politics and, after more than 20 years of releasing records, his repertoire is undeniably impressive. He moves effortlessly through recognisable songs such as ‘The Milk Man of Human Kindness’, ‘Sexuality’, ‘Levi Stubbs Tears’ and ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’. For a singer/guitarist to spend almost the entire set alone onstage and to spend around half that time talking, yet keep the audience enthralled throughout, is quite a feat.
Billy’s stories run the gauntlet of his career: his early political awakenings at an anti-racist march, his discovery of The Clash, on tour anecdotes about landmarks of the English countryside, tales of encounters with politicians in television green rooms and his reaction on the night Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Whilst highly entertaining stories with a good dose of dry humour, the narrator is clearly also asking the audience to remember that it’s what they do in their own lives, beyond the walls of the concert hall, that really matters.
The political ramblings are backed up by the heavy weight ‘There Is Power In A Union’, ‘NPWA’ (No Power Without Accountability), Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’, the last of which has many updated lyrics to reflect the current technological and social environment.
‘I Keep Faith’ from the latest album ‘Mr Love And Justice’ is one of the most explicit reminders of Billy’s overriding message of staying positive and active. Whilst his recognisable rants against racisim, fascism, homophobia and sexism are, whilst heartily welcomed, familiar territory, his final request to keep faith is a surprise. In a passionate tirade about the current financial situation he offers an unlikely uplifting response to the media’s constant descriptions of crisis and disaster. He points to the possibilities from the unfolding financial changes – if nuclear weapon programmes are simply too expensive to continue to support, if a new focus on green energy and a curtailing of wasteful living means a redirecting of funds into renewable energy and systems, if banks are forced into nationalisation and so remove the emphasis on profit-making.
Billy can lighten up too, though – he brings support act Otis Gibbs back onstage half way through the set and for the encore introduces Badly Drawn Boy for a rendition of ‘Walk Away Renee’ and Kate Nash for the Shangri-Las cover ‘Give Him A Great Big Kiss’. Although I’m not sure the audience were convinced at Billy’s claims that he’d always wanted to be in a girl band.
‘A New England’, complete with Kirsty MacColl’s extra lyrics, finishes off the evening. The crowd, who’ve sung along and respectfully clapped Billy thoughout the night leave with their faith restored. I just wish it was a crowd of ‘non-believers’ or those new to Billy Bragg who could have seen tonight’s show – feeling it might largely have been a case of preaching to the converted. However, based on this show, I suspect he’s got enough anger, passion and witty lyrics to keep him going for another 50 years, so there’s time to spread the faith a little further…