Going to see Billy Bragg live these days is more than just a performance of rock n roll. A one man band -armed with just his guitar slunk over his shoulder and a cup of tea at the ready – Bragg uses his show as a platform in the various causes he supports, most notably: Folk against Fascism, anti-BNP rhetoric and basically any political cause you think of tinted with a shade of red. In fact, for the two hours or so Bragg spends on stage tonight, nearly half of it is to do with political activism and polemical arguments on behalf of everyone from poor students to old age pensioners.
While it’s nice to see a musician who knows their politics for once, and the Marxist rhetoric makes for inspirational ideas, it’s when he turns up the amps and belts out the classics that he reminds us just how great his repertoire of songs are. Through emotional love songs such as ‘Must I Paint You a Picture’ or ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’, to the great story telling tradition songs, such as Levi Stubbs’ Tears and Milk Man of Human Kindness, Bragg has the crowd of mostly middle aged rockers, some even with their kids, singing in unison. When he leaves the early hits for some of his later songs such as the ‘Battle of Barking’ or ‘I Keep Faith’, the crowd’s enthusiasm weans just a little, and the hecklers cry for more familiar songs. Bragg responds by saying that if you want a nostalgic trip back to the 80s -to be reminded of Margaret Thatcher, bad haircuts and a whole lot more -go see Mick Hucknall.
Despite some of Bragg’s political ramblings becoming a tad boring at times (its supposed to be a gig after all), he does tell some good anecdotes, and even gives the audience a little history lesson, telling them that in this very venue in 1936, various leftist groups in East London came together to speak out, and eventually turn back a march planned by Oswald Mosley, and The British Union of Fascists, in what led to the Battle of Cable Street. Bragg’s only fault perhaps, is that after 25 years on stage, he’s a little bit too comfortable in his own skin to actually care sometimes if he is giving a good performance or not.