Live (April 5th, 2013)
Vogue Theatre - Vancouver, BC
“I’ve had a curry, I’ve had a shower, I’ve had a shit. It’s Friday night, let’s do this” were the words Billy Bragg chose to open his set with last Friday night at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver, instantly setting the mood for the evening as the packed and varied crowd laughed and cheered along with the British troubadour.
Unlike for his last Canadian tour, Bragg was no longer alone up on the stage but backed by a talented group of musicians, allowing him to properly round out of his songs and use the Vogue’s sound system to full advantage. This helped propel the sets’ early songs forward, like the opening Ideology from his 1986 album Talking With The Taxman About Poetry. The addition of bass, drums, piano and additional guitar gave the song a stronger punch, a fuller sound that resonated through the seats of the theatre.
Furthermore, it worked nicely for Bragg’s newer songs, which were the focus of the evening’s performance. Touring in support of his recent album, Tooth & Nail, the setlist consisted predominantly of folksy tracks from the album that requires the pedal steel guitar and stand-up bass to get the full effect.
No matter how good songs like Handyman Blues, No One Knows Nothing Anymore, Swallow My Pride, There Will Be A Reckoning and Goodbye, Goodbye may have sounded though, the moment Bragg dropped the acoustic and picked up an electric onstage by himself, a collective shiver went down the spines of everyone in attendance.
There’s something natural and endearing about seeing Bragg there by himself and the four song portion of the set that saw him isolated on the stage remained the highlight of the evening. Playing through The Space Race Is Over, The Milkman Of Human Kindness, To Have and to Have Not and Levi Stubbs’ Tears served as a reminder of how ever lasting Bragg’s music can be and that sometimes the bare-bones delivery can be even more moving than a full blown orchestra.
Scattered throughout the set, Bragg also paid homage to his idol Woody Guthrie with covers of Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key, All Your Fascists Are Bound To Lose (dedicated to Sunderland’s manger Paolo Di Canio), I Ain’t Got No Home and My Flying Saucer. Each cover came with a story behind it, serving as a musical history lesson for everyone in attendance. More than simply regurgitation history, Bragg imbued the stories with a sense of nostalgia, immediacy and reference, showcasing why the songs have stood the test of time and the personal connections he has with them all.
Plus, any story where an musical legend talks of trying to impress his mom, pooping under his aunt’s table, shaking the queen’s hand and writing a gospel song simply to piss off any detractor is a good story in my book.
While the absence of New England and There Is Power In A Union left a hole in my heart, the simplicity and authenticity of Billy Bragg’s performance was undeniable. He was funny and touching, endearing and sincere, critical and fair – a down to earth folksman there to sing songs and share stories.