06 December 2023 (gig)
07 December 2023
The Roundhouse must be the perfect place to see Billy Bragg. Much like the Bard of Barking, its origins were working class, a mid-nineteenth century railway engine turntable built with the sweat and industry of local craftsmen and, since the 1960’s renovation to a dance hall and youth club, it has become one of the most prestigious music venues and arts centres in the UK. A perfect mix for tonight’s artist. Art and labour.
The first of two sold out London gigs, It’s the Roaring Forty tour, a set that spans Billy’s back catalogue since his first offering in 1983 to the present day. The crowd also span generations, eager to buy the designer tea towels and tour t-shirts on offer at reasonable prices, no £40 sweat shop shirts in sight.
The baying crowd welcome Billy to the stage, Jim Dyson telecaster over his shoulder and resplendent in his “Shacket”, in which Billy seemed proud to be à la mode, even if accidentally. For anyone over 30, it’s a shirt/jacket hybrid, which does both jobs or neither, depending upon your perspective. Surprisingly he stands in the centre, which must seem strange to someone who spent their whole career on the left. The set opener is the wonderful “The Wolf covers its tracks”, swiftly followed by a track from the “Between the Wars” E.P. “The world turned upside down”. A little pop is then introduced with the early 90’s single “Sexuality” and, keeping on point, Billy has re-written a few new lines: “Just because you’re ‘they’, I won’t turn you away,” he adds, “if you stick around, I’m sure that we can find the right pronoun.” No song should rest on its laurels as Billy reflects the change in attitudes over the last 30 years, broadening the spectrum of inclusivity.
A few tracks in and Billy introduces “King Tide” where he shares his concerns about the planet and the harsh reality that global warming is on our doorstep, not in some far away tropical island. The song itself is loud and clear, no ambiguity with the sentiment. “Levi Stubb’s Tears’ is a highlight, a cautionary tale of young love turning sour and abusive, the protagonist seeking solace from her Tamla Motown tapes. Billy jumps backwards and forwards in time, moving between, country, folk, pop and soul.
One of the more recent songs that Billy has written is “Rich Men Earning North of a Million”. Billy had the “ghost of Woody Guthrie” whispering in his ear after hearing “Rich Men North of Richmond” by US singer Oliver Anthony, where the author sings of the challenges of life for the often forgotten and problems that ordinary people faced, blaming the elite classes, but offering no solution. The original song became a banner for the US right wing with lyrics seemingly pointing the finger at the obese for culpability. “Lord, we got folks in the street, ain't got nothin' to eat, and the obese milkin' welfare”. “Well, God, if you're 5-foot-3 and you're 300 pounds, Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds”. Billy wrote his response within an hour and within the next two hours had it posted on YouTube. He sings, “They want to divide us, because together we’re strong, Are you gonna take action now you’ve sung your damn song? If you don’t like the rich man having total control, You better get the union to roll. Join a union, fight for better pay, Join a union, organise today”. Far for creative and entertaining than a Twitter spat.
A recent addition to the setlist is “St. Swithin’s Day”, a truly wonderful rendition with slide guitar and keys from the more than capable accompaniment of CJ Hillman and JJ Stoney. Billy’s vocals have mellowed and matured with age, I doubt that anyone has ever suggested that he has the voice of an angel, but his vocals still evoke passion, emotion and authenticity that is increasingly rare in a world of manufactured pop.
To the majority of the British public, Billy is the protest singing poster boy, challenging those with power to protect those without and a spokesperson for those without a voice, but he is far more than this, his songs of love are delicate, sensitive and heartfelt. “I will be your Shield”, from the 2021 album “The Million Things That Never Happened’ is one such example. It is poignant, moving and beautifully arranged.
The set closes with a move back to protest and politics with the Woody Guthrie cover, “All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose”, Suella Braverman getting a notable mention, and the rousing “There is Power in a Union”, though I am not sure how this song can ever be sung any other way. The “Workers Playtime” track, “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward” completes the set as the band depart the stage.
For the encore, Billy plays the entire 1983 release, all 15 minutes and 57 seconds. “Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy”, essentially a debut E.P. masquerading as an album. I can still recall purchasing this as a teenager, complete with a sticker stating the record should “cost no more than £2.99”. A bargain, even in the early 80’s. The crowd sing much of “The Milkman of Human Kindness” while “A New England” receives a huge cheer, when Billy announces that he will sing the words he wrote for the sadly departed Kirsty MacColl’s cover version. With the final chords of the NME’s 440th best album of their 500 Greatest albums of all-time list ringing in our ears, a final goodbye before exiting.
Billy is a true London icon, in the same tradition of The Kinks, Ian Dury and Squeeze, he has Thames Water running through his veins. Just a few days away from his 66th birthday, Billy is collecting his pension, but certainly has no intention of slowing down and is as relevant now as he was during the Red Wedge days, maybe more so. His songs will always have something to say and we would all be foolish not to listen..