2002 / Live Reviews / Music

Concert Review: Billy Bragg Rocks As ‘Working Class Hero’

British Folk Rocker Mixes Music And Politics

“A working class hero is something to be,” John Lennon once sang in the early ’70s, but you’d never know it by looking at today’s media landscape.

Photo: Elektra Records

Photo: Elektra Records

Ignoring whatever the talking heads on the Fox News Channel have to say about it, a left-wing perspective is mostly marginalized in the mainstream media. From cable television news to major-city newspapers to the music industry, anything leftward of a Clinton-esque centrist position is typically invisible.

But given the state of the New York Times Best Sellers List, which has been dominated by Michael Moore’s “Stupid White Men,” there is a sizeable audience that’s craving progressive thoughts.

Take, for example, British folk-rocker Billy Bragg, whose April 20 concert at First Avenue in Minneapolis with his longtime backup group, the Blokes, drew a near-packed house of the converted waiting to be enthralled by Bragg’s railing against the system — both through sermon as well as song.

It was Bragg’s political stance and his passion for folk music that led Nora Guthrie, the daughter of folk icon Woody Guthrie, to entrust Bragg with lyrics that her father had written but not recorded. The songs that Bragg, with the help of alt-country titans Wilco, recorded for 1998’s “Mermaid Avenue” and 2000’s “Mermaid Avenue Volume II” were a creative revelation and gave some much-needed attention to all involved. Both records were recognized with Grammy nominations.

Although a rumored tour with Bragg and Wilco never materialized, Bragg formed his own six-piece band, the Blokes, and has stuck with them ever since — even recording his latest self-penned record, “England Half-English” with the group.

The concert featured Bragg singing a handful of songs from the new record, which often deteriorated from first-person narratives into proletarian sloganeering, but all were redeemed by a strong Booker T. & the MG’s-style groove.

But even the worst offender, “NPWA,” with its didactic chorus of “no power without accountability,” was an irresistible anthem thanks to an infectious drum beat by drummer Martyn Barker and sputtering piano fills from the Blokes’ master keyboardist Ian McLagan.

McLagan, who played with the Faces before laboring as a sideman for the Rolling Stones, was the ultimate supporting player throughout the show. For each song, he unrolled a blanket of sound from his Hammond organ or his piano that wrapped around the guitars and other string instruments. His presence makes the Blokes, who already feature two multi-instrumentalists, an incredibly versatile unit.

That flexibility clearly showed itself during the concert with a surprisingly reformatted “California Stars” from the first “Mermaid Avenue” album. The recorded version was originally sung by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and featured a decidedly country-rock bent. Bragg’s arrangement had an exaggerated Spanish flamenco flair but kept the same vocal melody. Midway through, Bragg steered the group through a musical breakdown that had band members playing hand-held percussion and singing together in Spanish before continuing on.

Another “Mermaid Avenue” classic that got a boost from a facelift was “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key.” What began as a duet between Bragg’s guitar and McLagan’s Hammond organ took on a funereal, hymn-like feel.

The music itself was only part of the occasion. Bragg kept the crowd entertained with his dry sense of humor and his self-deprecating stories. (According to Bragg, the only things you need to be a Billy Bragg imitator is an electric guitar and a flat, nasal delivery. “The only problem is they’re so f***ing earnest,” he said.)

While most singer-songwriters nervously fidget when they stand in front of a microphone without an instrument, Bragg appeared comfortable while he delivered his sometimes lengthy between-song commentaries to the audience. He took issue with topics both political and musical, ranging from the U.S.’s 2000 presidential election, the recent funeral of the Queen Mother, the U.K.’s closer relations with the European Union, retro rocker Lenny Kravitz, and rising star Andrew W.K. (“Don’t be fooled,” Bragg said, “he’s Billy Idol with long hair and a nosebleed.”)

Bragg was mostly on his own for the concert’s encore, in which he performed four songs with only an electric guitar. The drone of his voice was off set by the soft plucking of the guitar strings, giving powerful songs like “Take Down the Union Jack” plenty of room to express their unambiguous message.

One last surprise came when Bragg sang a pair of children’s songs — one of which had lyrics written by Guthrie (Bragg grinned through lyrics to Guthrie’s “Dry Bed,” which documents a child’s morning celebration.) The tunes were highlights of the show because they showed the singer’s tender side.

Irish band Black 47 opened the concert with their brand of political, bagpipe-led pub rock. The group, whose name is derived from the time of the Irish potato famine, was entertaining, but not inspiring.

In spite of Black 47’s presence on the bill, there’s a lingering impression that Bragg’s brand of protest music is still something of a novelty. Bragg is, in many ways, trudging down a road that’s been largely abandoned by singer-songwriters since the ’70s.

At one point, Bragg sang Guthrie’s words, “Ain’t nobody that can sing like me.” Given the current political climate, he’s right — and there’s a lot of people that are glad somebody is singing it.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2002 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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