Billy Bragg, Kim Churchill
Sheffield City Hall
30th November 2013
A mellow Billy Bragg brings his new album to Sheffield – plus of course plenty of old favourites as well as some lefty stuff and a bit of Woody Guthrie. idp reports back with words and pics.
Sheffield likes Billy Bragg and the feeling seems to be mutual. It’s a bond that was forged in the 1980s when Bragg visited both in support of striking miners and as part of the Red Wedge project. More recently he visited to perform in the street in solidarity with members of the Occupy movement. It’s not surprising that they should get on perhaps because the city can lay claim to being one of the birthplaces of English urban radicalism; it was described as “a damn bad place” by George III (in one of his lucid intervals), a centre of Chartism and Ruskin’s communist experiments, home of the Great Trespass and one of the cities with a strong claim to being the birthplace of the trades union movement. Sheffield and Billy Bragg are made for each other.
Less familiar in republican South Yorkshire is Australian singer songwriter Kim Churchill whose bluesy acoustics, incorporating some neat guitar playing with both hands on the fretboard and vocals and harmonica muffled with a handkerchief, win him plenty of friends. A fine example of the division of nations by common languages occurs when Churchill wonders aloud what kind of song to do next and an impossibly broad Yorkshire accent from the balcony, (so broad it may well have been a gag and can only be rendered here with Dickensian dialogue style spelling), bellowed “Jus’ play wha’ tha’ hast been playin’ lad. Quality.” When the comment has been repeated by request Churchill pauses for several seconds before saying “I’m very sorry, but I’ve no idea what you just said, so I’m going to do this song instead”.
There is of course plenty of political content in Billy Bragg‘s visit to the City Hall this year, including Power In A Union, All You Fascists and Between The Wars, plus the between song oratory and occasional lecture we have come to expect, including a strong rebuff to Russell Brand’s style of narcissistic celebrity cretin cynicism, but compared with previous visits the focus of this show is more personal and emotional.
Some people may object to the spotlight drifting away from the struggle, but those of us that can remember the Worker’s Platytime tour (almost my first ever gig with Michelle Shocked as support at Cambridge Corn Exchange) are well used to the idea of Bragg taking an occasional break from on stage activism to concentrate on matters of the heart a little. There’s still plenty of left wing rallying cries and it’s very noticeable how relevant to the world today a song like Woody Guthrie’s dust bowl ballad I Ain’t Got No Home still is – a simple tale of bankers taking the homes from working people and families divided by the need to travel for work, it’s a highlight of the show, delivered as a sombre ballad with steel wailing and a deep reverberative bass breaking like thunder over the stage.
With the backing of an excellent four piece band, including some fine pedal steel, the songs from the new country tinged album Tooth And Nail fit neatly into the set list, with No One Knows Nothing Any More and Handyman Blues the tracks which look as though they might find a permanent and regular place in the repertoire alongside the classics. It’s very noticeable throughout the show how much difference the Mermaid Avenue projects have made to Bragg’s on stage persona. Having started out as an angry young man who could write a song but not sing or play a musical instrument (as he described himself in an affecting tribute to Lou Read) he has matured into a fine performer of other writers’ material as well as his own, and the performance is much more relaxed than on any previous occasion that I have seen him. Highlights of the set include You Woke Up My Neighbourhood, Levi Stubbs Tears, a sweet California Stars and a fine and emotional Tank Park Salute and they are interspersed with anecdotes about the joys of touring, launderettes, monopoly and the difficulty of looking cool in front of your kids.
“What’s really nice,” Bragg says after commenting on this year’s anniversary (and anniversary edition) of Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy (see our review here), “is that after thirty years I can still get a room full of people interested in what I have to say.” He sounds like he means it and he’s right too. At the end of two and a half hours hanging on his every word, a near sell out crowd in the City Hall gives their hero a standing ovation after which he returns to the stage to finish with new England and an uplifiting Kraftwerk influenced Great Leap Forward.