Review by Sally Hamilton
Something is rotten in the state of Britain: its core values, identity and heart have been gradually and insidiously eroded by three and a half years of uncertainty, deception and denigration.
Back then, we rarely considered our position in Europe; it was simply a fact, both geographically and emotionally. We were tied to our neighbours by invisible links which were rarely questioned or discussed by the general population, let alone challenged with any appetite for change. But the righteous hubris of one man changed all that. A reckless political gamble threw the cards into the air and as we continue to watch them fall around us, with a new word – Brexit – now firmly ensconced within our lexicon, a polarised society has arisen amidst the biggest political and constitutional crisis since the Second World War and the fabric of our society is being systematically destroyed.
Our windswept, rainy, grey island has pulled up the drawbridge and Europhile dissenters are drowning, not waving, in the moat. Mainland Europe has never felt so far away. Social media has become a playing ground for trolls and propaganda; colleagues argue amongst themselves around the water-cooler; mates ‘un-friend’ those they have happily coexisted online with for years, arguing over something they never realised would or should matter and the rest of us shout out our frustrated diatribe into the vacuum created by our own safe bubble of concurrent allies.
And so we look to those who feel what we feel, who echo what we say, and who provide us with a sense of unity when we feel abandoned by the ones we elected and the ones we didn’t. The political pundits and the left-wing journalists; the writers and the activists; the poets and the singers – these are our light-houses, our beacons of hope as the storms of dissent continue to rage and iconic amongst these, remains Uncle Bill.
Billy Bragg has been writing, playing and singing both his own and others’ protest songs for almost forty years and has always been at his best when skillfully verbalising the struggles he sees around him and the frustrations he feels: a musical barometer for the zeitgeist of our generation. An opponent of racism, fascism, sexism and homophobia, his politics and his music are inter-twined, with his sets as likely to provide us with a stern pep talk and some liberal banter as they are a trip down musical memory lane.
After trialing the idea of a three night residency in select North Eastern American states, Bragg has brought the idea to the UK. Using this format, he is able to explore a wider back-catalogue than a usual tour would allow and is also, as he pointedly explains, crucially able to reduce his carbon footprint. The format of the triumvirate shows follows a ‘career spanning’ first night set, followed by albums one to three and four to six over the consecutive evenings and has been met across the UK by sold-out venues, with many devotees attending all three nights.
A dark Tuesday in late November sees the first night of Bragg’s residency in Cambridge, a left-leaning, politically active city he has visited many times before and where he is welcomed warmly by those of us who crave the unity of the crowd; a sense of solidarity in these ever-confusing times, as the countdown to an unwanted General Election and the threat of No Deal cliff-edge Brexit looms ever closer. Launching straight into “Sexuality”, Bragg knows how to get the crowd onside but despite this, the audience requires some warming-up – and he knows how to work us, moving swiftly into the first of three Woody Guthrie covers, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”.
By the time Bragg arrives at “Milkman of Human Kindness”, we are signing along; “Valentine’s Day is Over” is spat at us angrily as he reminds us of the significance of respect and amusing light relief is provided in the self-deprecating humour of “Handyman Blues”.
But of course, sing-along classics aside, we are also here to listen to Bragg talk about the things that matter: about the issues of the day, about his fears and concerns, his advice for our sanity and his attitude towards the situation we find ourselves in. Telling a tale about a couple outside New York’s Bowery Ballroom who lambasted him for ‘talking too much’, I conversely find myself wishing he would talk more and I doubt that I am alone in thinking that I would happily pay to hear Bragg without his guitar, such is the powerful message of his confident diatribe and his warnings against the most dangerous state of all: apathy.
Most compelling is Bragg’s explanation of his recently published pamphlet, The Three Dimensions of Freedom, in which he argues that freedom does not equate to unadulterated autonomy of speech and that in a time where our very democracy is being questioned and challenged, we must be mindful of the responsibility which freedom brings – and question its very notion. By alerting us to the way in which freedom of speech as a concept is being stretched out of shape by the powerful, Bragg suggests that with it must also come accountability and equality – the three points of this triangle being mutually inclusive. It’s an effective proposition and is exactly what the audience needs to hear from their front man tonight: the sincerity with which he approaches his subject, his crowd held silent as we ponder the import of his words. In this moment we again feel the stirrings of hope, we sense a connection and we feel as though, to quote “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”: ‘when the world falls apart some things stay in place’.
However, Bragg is keeping his most powerful musical polemics until last and we are treated to “I Keep Faith” (a reminder to us all), “Why We Build the Wall” and a wonderfully alternative version of “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward”, sardonically geared for his weary British audience: ‘we shake our fists in anger and respectively suggest that we take our money from Trident and spend it on the NHS…but if Brexit comes to No Deal, you know we will be the first people who voted to put sanctions on themselves. No one knows how many children Boris Johnson sired or can remember how many times his lies have got him fired, but I will tell you this mate, I know how this will end, when he does to Britain what he’s done to his ex-girlfriends’. We laugh but it’s through gritted teeth.
Bragg’s encore provides us with a final burst of solidarity in song: “Power in a Union” and “A New England”. I am warmed to see a young couple excitedly make their way to the front; they weren’t even born when Talking to the Taxman About Poetry was released and yet they are here, their fists in the air, chanting along with an audience of parents and grandparents. Theirs is the generation that the music of Bragg and his peers must target, there is power in a union and there is also hope in the young: so energised by the concerns of the day, so confident in their voice. They are not ground down or jaded, yet they are the ones who have been let down, whose futures have been put under threat and their vigour is inspiring.
We are not the ones who are looking for A New England but we are looking for a more tolerant, equal and empathetic one and in this, we must all act together: ‘it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand, there is power in a union’.