Billy Bragg: San Francisco – live review
Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
12th Oct 2013
Dinner music for rich people at a non unionised venue? Billy Bragg’s gig at The Great American Music Hall leaves a bad taste for Hannah McFaull.
Billy Bragg and I have a few things in common. We are both from the cultural nexus that is Barking. We both campaigned to flush the fascist BNP from the area during the 2010 election, working with Hope Not Hate. And we both happened to be at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco last Saturday night. But only one of us had paid to be there.
This was at least the sixth time I’ve seen the Braggster live, and the first since moving across the pond. Ironically, when he’s been here recently, I’ve been in East London. He is unequivocally one of my favourite songwriters – so much so that a verse of Between The Wars is tattooed on my left shoulder blade. It goes without saying that I was excited beforehand. I was disappointed afterwards.
I saw chat on Twitter from other fans who criticised the gig for avoiding playing too many of the classics they had come to see, leaning heavily on his more Americana inspired back catalogue. That’s not my complaint. The gig coincided with a free bluegrass festival in a nearby park which he was playing the next day. The crossover of fans was going to be inevitable.
Bragg also has a new album out (Tooth and Nail – it’s good) and so I expected to hear new tracks. You have to allow for your most beloved artists to progress, to grow, to evolve as musicians, otherwise they stagnate and get bored. I also don’t think the set was too slide guitar focused – he understood his audience and was playing to his crowd. Fair play.
But that’s all the allowances I’m making for the gig. Disappointed, let down, pissed off, however you want to describe it, the result was I actually left the gig early, which is unheard of. Having had a few days to put my finger on what upset me the most, here’s my attempt to articulate it in a sensible way.
The Great American Music Hall is a beautiful old venue in the heart of the Tenderloin. Imagine Kentish Town Academy for size and decor inspiration. When I bought the tickets I had the option of buying standard or dinner tickets. Nowhere was I told that the standard tickets meant you had to stand right at the back at the edge of the room, while the dance floor was covered in tables and chairs. It’s worth pointing out that there was a significant difference in the cost of the tickets and the standard tickets cost more than most gigs in this city.
We stood at the back of the room and watched a figure in a Pearl Snap shirt talk about universal healthcare on a stage that normally I’d be trying to stand close to. Every couple of minutes we were moved out of the way so the waitresses could get past to fill the orders of those who paid the extra to have a chair. And looking around, it struck me. Billy Bragg was dinner music for rich people. All the while preaching equality and social justice. The juxtaposition has been gnawing away at me all week.
I can’t believe that the man who inspires so many with his candour and ideology would settle for a set up at a gig like this, I just can’t. I subsequently found out that the Great American is a non union music venue. So much for the Power in a Union hey Billy? It appears to me that this is either an oversight and Mr Bragg needs to give closer instruction to his booking agents about who he wants to work with and where he wants to play. Or alternatively, the money made is more important than the experiences of the fans. I know which option I’m hoping it is.