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Billy Bragg at the Commodore Ballroom

Billy Bragg Vancouver

Billy Bragg at the Commodore Ballroom, Nov 21 2009. Jordana Meilleur photo

Review and photos – Billy Bragg at the Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver, Nov 21, 2009

– review by Rachel Fox/photos by Jordana Meilleur

Billy Bragg is an endearing mix of frustrated sensitivity and thoughtful anger. He sings the songs of the underdog and the everyman, his raw honesty tempered by sharp feistiness leaving him anything but vulnerable. His shows are memorable because he makes a point of exposing the many facets of his person; the experience is as much about the music as it is about his openness and candor, and what resonates is how he relates and interacts with his audience by his willingness to share of himself.

At several points at his Vancouver show Saturday night, as he closed in on the end of his current North America tour, Bragg encouraged the crowd to sing along. It was inspiring to scan the sea of faces and witness the diversity of the crowd, something Bragg himself clearly appreciated.

Lacking the trumpet required for several bars in one song, he improvised and talked about how he would just “amuse himself to fill the gap,” and played the opening riff of the White Stripes‘ “Seven Nation Army”. For the “old geezers like me that didn’t get that (joke),” he seamlessly launched into “Smoke on the Water.”

“Same joke, different song.”

On Vancouver’s current weather of unforgiving rain and the Bronte-novel-greyness: “Number one, it’s November and number two, it’s Canada. In two weeks you’ll all be crunching in the snow and thinking, ‘I wish it was fucking raining!’”

Billy, the Lout: “This tea is wonderful stuff, and you’ll sing in tune if you drink enough of it, which is why I drink it. This information was passed along to me by Madonna, who fucking needs it.”

Billy, the Cheeky Bastard: Discussing the recent Canadian political pseudo-gaffe that saw the sending of condolences to Number 10 Downing Street under the mistaken belief that Lady Margaret Thatcher had died (in reality, it was Transport Minister John Baird’s aged feline, named after the Iron Lady): “Street parties were well under-way back home and I was sorry to have missed it. When they found out that Thatcher wasn’t dead, the festivities were dampened with sympathy for the cat.”

Billy, the Parent: Perhaps the “obnoxious” temperament of Bragg’s youth has been tempered by age as well as being parent to a 15-year-old son, whose guitar prowess and love of rock music provided fodder for several domestically-inspired anecdotes. Billy Bragg the Elder discussed, with infectious pride, the amusement and delight he felt at Bragg the Younger’s musical queries (having a rock star dad comes with inherently cool perks).

Bragg the Elder freely offered instruction on everything from Stiff Little Fingers to Thin Lizzy to Ziggy Stardust. Upon being asked “if he knew of a band called Foghat,” his fatherly instinct was so overcome with notions of “long hair and flowers and prog rock” that he drew the line, opting to feign ignorance rather than risk the potentially disastrous outcome offered by a parentally-sanctioned introduction.

Billy, the Man of Faith: Besides being a romantic, Bragg is also a man of faith – not the kind of faith offered by organized religion as much as the kind we can all offer ourselves, which is tied into the courage we muster around our convictions.

At 19, Bragg became empowered to deal with racist behavior after seeing the Clash perform at the Rock Against Racism concert in London’s Trafalgar Square in 1978. “My perspective of the world changed, even if the world didn’t.” He went on to say, “the biggest enemy is cynicism, the cynicism we all feel of, ‘what’s the point?’”

During his set, Bragg performed several Woody Guthrie songs and spoke about “carrying the torch” passed along to him from bands like the Clash. In that moment I thought of Johnny Cash and the compassion offered in “Folsom Prison Blues”, and I longed to hear Bragg cover one of his songs. (Bragg, along with Clash members Mick Jones and Topper Headon, recently combined their musical talents to benefit the Jail Guitar Doors prison charity.)

After the show I spoke with Bragg, and asked him to sign the handwritten set list I procured from the stage. (Despite having totally blown my knee, my inner-Romanian gymnast vaulted me up there – talk about an “accident waiting to happen.)

We spoke about faith and cynicism, and I told him that I’d considered, “cynicism to be the anvil of optimism; but now you have me thinking it’s the anvil of faith.”

“Think of the anvil as being what you do – use it in a positive way to put out the cynicism you see around you,” he offered.

We chatted on the topic for a few minutes, and I was both delighted and privileged to have time with the man himself.

As I turned to leave he said, “That’s a good metaphor though.”

High praise indeed from Uncle Billy; in that moment, the torch was passed. I will keep my faith.

More Billy Bragg Vancouver photos:

5 responses to “Billy Bragg at the Commodore Ballroom

  1. 11 years ago  

    Nice review. As a parent however, I gotta say that shielding your child from Foghat is as misguided as all those metaphors about faith and anvils and torches. Screw metaphors – the fuckin’ Reaper is knocking and we need to be crushing heads with anvils at this point, and torching institutions. Literally. I love ol’ Billy, but he’s gone soft.

    Did he do “New England”?

  2. 11 years ago  

    I don’t think he’s gone “soft,” I think he’s just figured out a way to sharpen a different point. He spent a fair deal of time talking about fascists and government – he hasn’t lost that edge, he just channels it differently now.

    And yes, he did do “New England” – both at Zulu and the Commodore. He dedicated it to Kirsty MacColl and then sang the verse he wrote for her. I appreciated that – as a fan and as a person. Came across as thoughtful, touching, loyal – a nice way to remember and acknowledge his friend, who was also ours, by virtue of her music.

  3. 11 years ago  

    Now is hardly the time to stop talking about fascists and government. I think Bragg’s politics simply aren’t robust enough for the developing paradigm we face. I would even speculate that he knows it. And a song like “Sing Their Souls Back Home” feels like a cop-out to me, when it’s the last thing we need.

    But I take your point — we love Billy because of his humanity and warmth (and maybe his sentimentality). I don’t see Crass filling the Commodore.

  4. 11 years ago  

    Billy’s just as “political” (whatever that means) as ever. He’s probably more active – the jailhouse charity being one example – than (overtly) vocal.

    He is also involved with local politics at some level (Google it) … he spoke at length about the BNP party in London and how they were gaining in popularity. They actually have a policy of not accepting non-whites (?) into the party, though they claim not to be “racist.”

    It was a really good show; if you’re a fan of him and his music I’m sure you’d have enjoyed it too. 🙂

  5. 11 years ago  

    Ah, you know, I think I misunderstood you (sorry, not unusual for me). But allow me to plow on anyway with reckless disregard for everybody’s safety:

    I’m aware of Jail Guitar Doors and Bragg’s continued activism. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while excoriating the BNP is a worthy thing to do, identifying its recent gains as a symptom of a much larger problem would be even worthier. The BNP’s racism is hideous, but it’s also cartoonish. The institutionalized racism of a top down economic model, which is presently costing us a planet among other things, is far, far more insidious and dangerous. It needs to be addressed unequivocally (I think) by anybody whose machine is meant to be killing fascists.

    This is what I mean by “robust” – the very model of political discourse in 2009 is bankrupt in the face of the corporate war machine that ate the world. His best intentions aside, I think that Bragg ends up being counter-revolutionary by symbolizing the old left, which isn’t up to the task at hand. I could go further and suggest that he’s hobbled by a nostalgic streak that runs all the way back to Life’s a Riot.

    But what Billy does is really nobody’s business but his, and again, I’m sure I would have enjoyed the show. Billy Bragg meant a lot to me when I was just a little Dink.


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