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Crowd left wanting more after Billy Bragg's electric Birmingham show - review

By Bill McCarthy | Music | Published:

Talk about déjà vu. Watching an angry man berating the system, the Tories and urging people to vote Labour took me back more than 30 years.

Billy Bragg at The Institute

Then, it was an angry younger man, preaching a similar message at the height of Thatcher's Britain.

Almost a busker and inspired by The Clash his repertoire included folk, punk, Americana and haunting ballads. Billy Bragg may be greyer than he was at the Birmingham Odeon in the mid-80s in the wake of the miners' strike and the Falklands War, but to borrow from Led Zeppelin, the song remains the same.

This time there was no sign of his bizarre support acts at the time, The Frank Chickens and Hank Wangford Band, just the man and his guitars and a catalogue of songs espousing anger love, betrayal and politics red in tooth and claw, but 30 years on with a slicker delivery.

At 61, the proud Essex boy retains a remarkably powerful voice, deeper and more resonant than decades ago, while his peerless guitar work belied the fact that this was a one man band.

The first of three sold-out concerts, the intimacy of the Birmingham's Institute was the perfect setting for the faithful to see a set of brilliantly crafted songs, first-rate musicianship, stand-up comedy and withering attacks on the likes of Morrisey, Donald Trump and especially Boris Johnson.

And, of course, Brexit.

I have little doubt he has the material and the delivery style to do a one man stand up routine without the music.

From his first song Sexuality, closely followed by Thatcherites, his crashing chords and deft picking of the guitar took us back to the eighties and right up to the present day with the imminent election, with clever reworking of his classics to rail against modern day Trump's America and Johnson's Britain.

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From deadly serious appeals about the danger to the environment to more comical moments with Handyman Blues, he raced through a 90-plus minutes, barely drawing breath.

Tributes to working class heroes such as Woody Guthrie were delivered with All You Fascists and Ingrid Bergman and his relentless attacks on right wing politics and grim warnings about rise of the far right worldwide were both powerful, delivered as they were with both passion and humour.

The crowd loved it of course as he was preaching to the already converted, and his  natural empathy with them had them all singing along to Milkman of Human Kindness and To Have and To Have Not.

He also had them in stitches with tale about trying to get former wrestler Big Daddy, aka Shirley Crabtree, to dance in his leotard for the video Greetings To The New Brunette.

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Inevitably the set drew to a close with a powerful monologue about working class solidarity, accountability, yes compassion and above all the need to vote.

He hammered the message home with a rousing There Is Power In A Union as a finale, before inevitably answering calls for an encore with a carefully reworded Dylan classic for modern times, The Times They Are A Changing.

The crowd were left wanting more and some would get is he plays again tonight (Monday) and tomorrow.

Thirty years on his message and talent is undiminished.

Bill McCarthy

By Bill McCarthy
Chief Sub-editor - @BMcCarthy_Star

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