Saturday, September 23, 2006

Billy Bragg - Wisdom without Cynicism

Review: Billy Bragg, live at Club Soda (Montreal)

Sorry, Ottawa; I think we wore him out. Despite his pleading with the diehard fans at Club Soda to help save his Cockney voice for tomorrow night's gig at the New Capital Music Hall, we called him back for three encores. What's more, audience members down in front hung onto him during that third encore until he relented and played all seven tracks from his original 1983 release Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy.

But it wasn't merely to hear him play his songs that I went. Bragg's witty (and sometimes scathing) on-stage banter is worth the ticket price itself. While he does take time out during his act to peddle (of all things) his new book, The Progressive Patriot, he smoothes over the sales pitch by explaining in his own heartfelt way how he came to the conclusion cynicism is our biggest social problem.

We also got to hear him describe his odd life on the road as consisting of a mesmerizing flutter of planes, shows and time killed mindlessly in hotel rooms. He talked of the joys of sharing insights with his eight-year old son, such as a YouTube download of a cat caught in a precarious situation involving a ceiling fan. And the recurring theme of his bitter disappointment with Tony Blair, whom he refered to as Bush's poodle.

More sometimes gems were to be found in reworked lyrics from old songs, such as his update to the old Leadbelly staple Bourgeois Blues with new lines like I've got the Bush War Blues / He's making the world safe for Haliburton.

Perhaps the highlight of the night was a new song written in a style Bragg dubs "Johnny Clash", wherein he claims to have channeled Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer during its composition. (He had to prepare for it by turning to his amp and getting that "first Clash album" sound going). Always that big heart.

Assuming he hangs onto what's left of his voice, he's heading across Canada next week and will then play a few dates on the United States west coast. At 48 Bragg's still got a taste of the old punk in him, even if his style is primarily a mix of folk and soul. Tour Dates here.

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