IN TUNE: “Just a bunch of softies, aren’t ya?” Billy Bragg playfully scolded the sold-out City Winery crowd, which welcomed the warm ballads that leavened his urgent calls to action. His latest campaign: Making those who exploit the defenseless more accountable – from fascists to financial crooks to full-of-it public officials.
In a perfect world, Bragg would grow softer. He’d drop the protest songs and focus on his divine melodies and turns of romantic phrase.
But it seems the more he looks around, the more Bragg sees the need for common folk to stand up to the more powerful privileged.
Unfortunately, he said, an insidious force is at work.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the enemy of those who want to make the world a better place is not capitalism or fascism. It’s cynicism,” Bragg said. “But it’s OUR cynicism. It’s that doubt, that questioning: Does anything ever change?
“The cynic is the one who has given up before they’ve even started. They want you to stop trying, they want you to stop pushing, they want you to stop carrying on.
“Don’t give up so easily!”
Bragg has inserted himself in the lineage that stretches from the slave-day spirituals through the defiant songs of oppressed laborers to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. But he’s earned that position, ever-active in politics, pure in his devotion to the common man, always spreading the message. His trump card: an irrepressible faith in the human spirit.
Although he sang Guthrie’s melancholic, 70-year-old “I Ain’t No Home in This World Anymore,” a song Bragg said could have applied to the last 12 or so years, he balanced it with his own “Tomorrow’s Going to Be a Better Day” and “I Have Faith.”
There’s no need to interview the man. His shows are often dialogue — and Tuesday night at City Winery was no exception. For some of us, Bragg’s calls to action are both comfort that we aren’t alone and inspiration to do whatever we can to make a difference.
“What we lack in our society is accountability,” he said. “It’s not enough to put some of these financial criminals in prison. We need to make them help the economy grow. Capitalism is not accountable to the individual, to the countries, to the planet…. There must be no hiding place for the exploiters of the poor.”
It set up one of his more recent tunes, “NPWA (No Power Without Accountability)”: “We’ve got to find a way to hold them to account / Before they find a way to snuff our voices out.”
It’s pure happenstance that Bragg showed up in New York City at such a momentous time – what with gay marriage just legalized, the horror of the Norway slaughter still fresh, the Rupert Murdoch scandals in England and the days quickly growing closer to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 a short cab ride from Varick Street.
(The three shows he launched Tuesday night at City Winery were originally scheduled earlier this year but had to be moved after Bragg’s mother died. Tuesday, Thursday & Friday sold out quickly.)
No surprise, then, that he’d do “Sexuality,” after playfully declaring that everyone “should have the right to reject marriage.”
Bragg also noted how the Norway butcher was inspired by “soccer hooligans” from his native land, the English Defense League. The trouble with such fascists, Bragg said, is that they are always among us.
“We never beat these people,” he said. “We have to keep taking them on…. We have to commit ourselves to fighting the fascists again and again and again.”
Bragg also spoke about the beauty of the Internet, which he said “is destroying the record industry while helping the music industry.”
As proof, he said, he wrote “Never Buy The Sun,” about the British tabloid rag, on a Friday, posted it on YouTube the next day — and got 15,000 hits in 24 hours. So he recorded it that Monday, mixed it on Tuesday and made it available for free download on Wednesday. “People in Australia could hear it right away,” he said.
Perhaps unknown to many Americans, Brits have trashed The Sun since 1989, when it reported that a ruthless mob had looted the corpses and pissed on nearly 100 people who were killed during a human crush at a British soccer match. “It wasn’t true,” Bragg said.
What followed was a show of “moral solidarity” that held “great power” when people in overwhelming numbers in Liverpool and Eton refused to buy the paper, he said, introducing the song:
“Someone’s hiding in the bushes with a telephoto lens / While their editor assures them that the means justify the ends / Tabloids making millions betting bullshit baffles brains / And they cynically hold up their hands if anyone complains / And just say, ‘Well, we just give the people what they want’ / But they’re crying out for justice.”
Don’t get the wrong idea; There was plenty of spirited fun, as always, in Bragg’s 28-song performance, which a brief intermission divided neatly in half. He talked about how his son, now 17, holes up in his room, putting every song he learns on his electric guitar “through the Ramones sawmill…. like an angry hornet in a biscuit tin.”
And although his wife often directs Bragg to lower the levels on what was once his amp, “I can’t tell him to turn that shit down because it is exactly THIS shit,” he shouted, launching into the punk-powered “Milkman of Human Kindness.”
Today, Bragg will be conducting a free show outdoors at Lincoln Center: Musicians are invited to bring their guitars to “The Big Busk,” where, instead of lyrics, charts will be displayed on cue cards held onstage so everyone can play along. “Folkie karaoke,” Bragg called it. It went over big in England, Jill Sobule, who has toured with Bragg, told me at a living-room show last week.
As a warm-up to the event, Bragg performed one of the tunes he said he intends to play tonight.
“If you’re ever losing an audience,” he told the City Winery crowd, “there’s only three songs that can get you out of trouble. One is a Kenny Rogers song. Two is a Smiths song…. And third is a Bob Marley song.”
As he did at the Clearwater Festival in Croton earlier this year, Bragg led a sing-along to “One Love,” with a bit of a lyric change: His version of the Marley tune calls for the U.S. to forgive African nations their debt and let them set about feeding, clothing and educating their people – as reparations for slavery, for one thing, but mostly out of human compassion: “One love / One heart / Let’s drop the debt / And things will be all right.”
For those of us who truly want to create a better, more just world, a Billy Bragg show is part history lesson, part heart-tugger and part stand-up routine.
Forgetting the words to an old Guthrie tune he recently unearthed, Bragg told of how, during the soundcheck hours earlier, he spotted a queue of people waiting their turn at a large bowl. Thinking there was punch inside, he waited patiently, got to the front – and discovered it was cheese.
“So there was no punchline,” he said, to widespread groans.
(If you’re not familiar with the story: Sixteen years ago, Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, asked Bragg to research and reproduce some of her dad’s unfinished work. He got Wilco to help. The combo has given us two albums so far and are working on a third. The trouble with the project: Guthrie didn’t write charts. The music was in his head. Recreating songs from assorted notes takes some doing.)
Like Guthrie, Steve Earle and others who share their unique passion, Bragg’s lifelong mission has been to give voice to the unheard, to empower the powerless. As he’s done before, he told the lower Manhattan crowd how “Rock Against Racism” changed his life – not because the Clash were so damn intense but because he’d discovered 100,000 young people just like him, determined to make a difference.
At that moment, he said, he realized that he was being “complicitous by not saying anything” while his co-workers were openly racist, sexist and homophobic. “When I went to work Monday morning, I knew that I wasn’t in the minority anymore. I was different than those assholes,” he said. “The Clash got me there –they did a great job. But what changed my perspective of the world forever was being part of that audience.”
It was then that Bragg delivered the inspirational “I Keep Faith.”
“It is my belief in you that keeps me coming back,” he said, “a faith in humanity, a faith in community, a faith in the people 20 yards behind you, left in the dust….”
It’s that humanity that makes Billy Bragg one of the most eloquent singer-songwriters of this or any other time. It’s what brought many in the crowd to their feet in the regular set’s anthemic close, “There Is Power in the Union” – yet another unfortunately timely song.
It is also what had a full house in full throat on the cheekily-chosen encore, “A New England.” Bragg smiled, striding from one side of the stage to the other, practically climbing onto a front table, as the patrons belted out the chorus:
“I don’t want to change the world / I’m not looking for a new England / I’m just looking for another girl.”
A bunch of softies? Hardly.