Live Review: Billy Bragg

23 October 2012 | 10:18 am | Wes Holland

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In the 48 hours that Billy Bragg has been in town, he's packed a fair bit in. He's done a Woody Guthrie celebration show for Melbourne Festival, a spontaneous early morning gig at Southern Cross Station for the National Union Of Workers, an instore performance and a one-hour live-to-air. That's pretty impressive. The aforementioned NUW gig was incredible. Standing in the rain at eight in the morning, Bragg played Power In A Union and a version of Guthrie's I Ain't Got No Home – “a 70-year-old song that could have been written in the last five years,” for 600 union supporters. Whatever you think of the man or his music, he is certainly committed to the cause.

Tonight's show is to be a special one. Billed “An Evening With Billy Bragg”, it begins just like every other show he's done over his 25-plus years in the business – Bragg walking on stage alone, plugging in his guitar, and getting on with it. He opens with the instantly recognisable St Swithin's Day, afterwards dedicating it to Elizabeth Murdoch “for letting us use her hall”. Billy Bragg has stage banter down pat like no one's business. In between every couple of songs comes an accompanying monologue, and most are either hilarious or upliftingly political. The Price I Pay is followed by Bragg telling the audience how he used his Melbourne-made Jim Dyson guitar in self-defence at a recent Dutch show. Tomorrow's Going To Be A Better Day (featuring “ironic whistle” solo) is revealed to be Bragg's “anthem for the war against cynicism”.

Touching on the previous night's Billy Bragg Celebrates The Legacy Of Woody Guthrie show, Bragg performs another moving rendition of I Ain't Got No Home, before heading back to more familiar Bragg territory. Crowd-pleasing versions of two of Bragg's most famous solo records Sexuality and The Milkman Of Human Kindness – the latter of which is heart-warmingly announced with a story of the first time Bragg heard his own son playing the song on his guitar – leads to the interval (“a chance to have piss and a beer”). You really get the impression that Billy Bragg is Father Of The Year potential, pretty much every year.

Fifteen minutes and a premium house wine later, he's back on for the second half of the show. The World Turned Upside Down sounds just as fresh as it did in '85 and Must I Paint You A Picture, despite causing much vocal strain “almost to the point of passing out”, is probably the second-best song in his repertoire. The most moving part of the show, however, comes after a long commentary on the UK's phone hacking scandal (awesomely putting Rupert Murdoch in the shit inside the hall named after his mother) and winds up with a version of Never Buy The Sun. A story about seeing The Clash in 1978 at their famous Rock Against Racism show is followed by cracking versions of relatively new song I Keep Faith and the glorious There Is Power In A Union. The set closer, however, is the finest moment of the show; a completely updated version of the song he calls his themesong, Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards. And it really is updated: “Things haven't been this bad since Margaret Thatcher/So keep calm and carry on watching X-Factor/Switch off World Of Warcraft and start working for the great leap forwards” – GENIUS!

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He exits briefly only to return for the encore of Tank Park Salute, Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key (from the Billy Bragg & Wilco album Mermaid Avenue), Yarra Song (a song he dedicates to Melbourne) and finally A New England. Tonight is a treat – two-and-a-half hours with the ever-charismatic and inspirational gent that is Billy Bragg? An Evening With… indeed.