Posted: 02 Dec 2013
The Sage Gateshead
Thirty years on from visiting Newcastle to busk outside The
Tube, Billy Bragg has thankfully made it indoors on the opposite side of the
Tyne at a sold-out Sage. In contrast
to those early solo days with speakers and amp strapped to his back, he was backed
by a four-piece band at least one of whom wasn’t born when Bragg’s debut (vinyl)
album “Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy”appeared in 1983.
Sporting what he described as “a radical Kenny Rogers look”, the bearded bard played
a two and a half hour set, unexpectedly opening with vintage album track “Ideology.” Gone were the strident vocals and sparse guitar, replaced by
a countrified feel more Laurel Canyon than Hackney Marshes.
Suspicions that Bragg’s latest backing band was apeing the sound of the late
1990’s “Mermaid Avenue” collaboration
with Wilco deepened as both pedal steel guitar and dobro appeared.
Both were expertly picked by CJ Hillman, whose dobro work illuminated the
standout track on 2013 album “Tooth and
Nail”, “Handyman Blues” - despite
Billy’s claim his instrument was comprised of a hubcap from a Vauxhall Viva! Byrds fancier Hillman later strapped on
a 12 string Rickenbacker as the band marked his 26th birthday by playing
sound check favourite, “I’ll Feel a Whole
Far from a new fad, Bragg’s country influence extends beyond the Wilco era
back to early ‘B’ sides and a liaison with Cockney C&W king Hank Wangford. The
influence of Guthrie evidently remains strong quarter of a century on; two tracks from “Mermaid Avenue” plus a barnstorming cover of “All You Fascists” and a rather more melodic and newly-recorded “I Ain’t Got No Home.”
A mid-set solo segment including “Between
the Wars” and “Levi Stubbs Tears”was a reminder of Bragg’s political leanings and punk roots: a bit like when alleged comedian Mike
Yarwood used to say “and this is me”.
Of course it’s not just the songs: Bragg is a past master and mixing pop and
politics with piss-taking and polemic. With the backdrop of a Fire Brigades
Union banner (motto: we save people not banks), everything from Emerson, Lake
and Palmer to Boris Johnson got a mention, while he offered support to Nigella
Lawson (“she gave us sticky toffee pudding, her husband gave us Mrs Thatcher”).
Admitting that his 17 minute debut album was the perfect
length for an encore, sprinkling his set with “The Milkman of Human Kindness” and “New England” gave clues that a recent heavy cold would rule out
that finale. However, those Braggophiles who stepped in to prompt him with the
opening line of the former will have been satisfied by a closing trio of songs aged
20 years plus.
Returning for an air-punching, electrified “Power
in A Union.” A heartfelt “Tank Park Salute” with piano
accompaniment then followed, before the band appeared for a joyous rendition of“Waiting for The Great Leap Forwards.”
Whether bashing tunes out on a
guitar made in a woodwork lesson or a vintage model acquired in California, it’s
evident that30 years have failed to dim his passion and optimism. Happily
Billy’s later material now matches some of the earlier heights – tonight’s set
list interestingly lacking solo tunes released during a 20 year spell when less
folks shared his vision and times were more prosperous.