Would you like to swipe your 'loyalist card'? The leftie tunesmith brings the funny to the Empire Music Hall
Here’s a test for all you Billy Bragg fans. Sing the chorus to ‘A New England’ aloud. Go on, nobody’s listening. OK, all done? I bet you sang it in a ‘Landin’ accent, didn’t you? It’s impossible not to, as the audience at this Empire Music Hall gig prove. Bragg must think he has one hell of a travelling fanbase.
Kicking off the 7th Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, Bragg takes the stage dressed in cowboy shirt and faded jeans, his trusty Fender Telecaster in hand, and strums the opening chords to recent song ‘Last Flight to Abu Dhabi'.
With the political upheaval in the Middle East dominating the headlines at the time of this gig, you would be forgiven for thinking that Billy ‘Professional Leftie’ Bragg wouldn’t miss the opportunity to air his views on recent events, and that this gig would, as a result, be as entertaining as a Socialist Worker Christmas Party. But you’d be wrong.
Not only has Bragg always been so much more than a ‘political’ songwriter (his songs about the politics of the heart receive the best reception tonight), he is also one very funny man. A stage that has hosted The Empire Laughs Back comedy club for many years has rarely had a funnier man stand upon it.
He admits that he voted Lib Dem in the last general election ('That didn’t work out') and recalls how, in helping with the campaign to oust the BNP from his hometown of Barking, he sent some election volunteers to eat at a chip shop which had been closed for 20 years. 'That’s what happens when you live in Dorset and don’t visit your mum enough,' he admits.
Bragg also recites his favourite heckle ('Play your hit!') and describes his fear at being asked in a Belfast coffee shop if he had a loyalist card. 'I think that’s what the girl behind the counter said, anyhow.' He also tells a long, involved anecdote involving both Mick Hucknall and Anne Widdecombe, which has the crowd in hysterics.
Bragg has been performing for over 30 years, in concert venues all around the world, and his mastery of his craft seems effortless. He carries the crowd with him: they laugh with him, sing with him, agree with him. Although many of the audience are middle-aged like the singer, there are a smattering of younger people who seem just as familiar with his songs, and just as passionate in their response.
Bragg shares his love of songwriting, and talks about his love for the music of Woody Guthrie, playing a beautiful version of ‘I Ain’t Got No Home,’ then two of the songs he recorded with Wilco for Mermaid Avenue, the 1998 album of unfinished Guthrie songs he and the band completed.
‘Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key’ and ‘Ingrid Bergman,’ with its saucy lyrics that reveals the living, red-blooded man behind the political icon Guthrie became in death, are highlights tonight.
Bragg, too, has often been (wrongly) criticised as being merely a ‘political’ songwriter – a sloganeer – but tonight it’s the personal songs that receive the biggest response. ‘Levi Stubbs Tears', ‘Greetings to the New Brunette’ and ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’ are each performed perfectly, and the majority of the audience sing along to every word.
The night ends – as we knew it would – with his ‘hit’, albeit a hit for the late Kirsty MacColl, ‘A New England'. Bragg sings the verses, we sing the chorus in our fake Barking bawl. Bragg doesn’t seem to mind. We’re all family, innit.
For information on the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival visit What's On.