by Karl Hodge
It was a hot night in the Picturedrome. The 21st of June; the summer solstice. We skipped the support act and were only just able to squeeze into a vantage point to see Billy Bragg return to Holmfirth.
Before the gig we wondered which Billy we’d be getting. The iconic Red Wedge era Billy Bragg is well known to indie fans of a certain age; stripped down to scratchy, naturally overdriven electric guitar; singing of miners and unions and choosing sides. A sort of Essex Bob Dylan.
But, like Dylan, Bragg’s early electrification of folk lead him later to country and those who continued to listen will know that Billy collaborated with Wilco across a pair of albums (Mermaid Avenue I & II), setting music to the unpublished lyrics of country folk legend Woody Guthrie. A hero of Dylan’s too. It flummoxed those who had pigeon-holed Bragg as a one note leftie, showing he could make music with soul as well as political passion.
What we actually get on the night is a flickering hybrid of both. Billy played unaccompanied, switching between electric and acoustic as befits the song. At times it was like flashing back to those armpit stinking university cellar bar gigs of the 80s. At others the old Yorkshire cinema was temporarily the Grand Ole Opry or a Greenwich village coffee house. Sometimes, too, we were in the Comedy Store.
It is no surprise that the man who came up with the phrase “a dedicated swallower of fascism” is such a natural comedian on stage. He explains, almost apologetically, after an opening salvo of tunes plucked from “Life’s a Riot…” that in the States he’s known as a purveyor of Americana.
“If you don’t know what Americana is,” says Billy, “it’s folk music for fans of The Smiths.”
The self-deprecation extends to the outfit Billy’s wearing. He’s looking fit and lean with trimmed beard and hair grey. But instead of the tartan shirts of old, he’s wearing a cowboy shirt with patterned epaulettes. He even has a story about that; how he bought a job lot in Calgary – the cowboy shirt capital of Canada – upon hearing he’d broken into the country charts.
And the fun and games continue with cuts from Bragg’s latest album, Tooth and Nail – a brilliantly listenable mix of softly spoken folk and country. He introduces viral single Handyman’s Blues with a short speech that parodies the polemic he was once known for; asking men to rise and fight for the right to down their DIY tools and be taken seriously for the thinking generation of wussy milksops we now are.
There are jokes throughout the night at the expense of The Tour de France too, which will pass through Holmfirth on the 6th of July. He ends the evening with a shouted “Au revoir Holmfirth! Merci beaucoup!”
But Billy can be serious too – and it’s testament to his passion for protest that he can still get lost in what appears to be genuine and continuing incredulity at the political system he’s been fighting against for thirty years. It is difficult not to when dealing with the subject matter of songs like Which Side Are You On?, There is Power in a Union and Between the Wars.
It doesn’t always seem to land right on the night. There is no crowd consensus when he calls upon us to unionise, as there was back in the Biko bar of the 80s. It is not helped by the hectoring of SWP activists behind us translating everything Bragg says into invective. (At one point, Billy gently suggests that it is our collective complacency that allows the rise of right – which the noisy heckler interprets as ‘Exactly. Listen! Vote you fucking twats!’). Charming.
But other issues are more universal – like the need to be positive; that change is only possible through action. Whatever world you want to live in, everyone seemed able to agree about that.
And – finally, Billy was able to articulate to us that it is possible to be patriotic without being fascistic; to be a progressive patriot, embracing values of fairness and freedom without judgement or prejudice.
Billy delivered “A New England”, as his final encore. A song made famous by Kirsty McColl, he protests that he is more concerned with the relatively simple conundra of unrequited love than changing the world. But you never quite believe him.
As Bragg left the stage, the roar of applause turned to a collective gasp as a scrap broke out at the back of the venue. It was snuffed out in moments as the crowd first reeled, then piled in to peacefully restrain the miscreants responsible. There is power in a union.