Billy Bragg @ Crescent Ballroom|3/26/13
For his first-ever Phoenix show, Billy Bragg gave his all, of all of his sides -- the young punk firebrand, the activist, the lover, the Woody Guthrie acolyte, the folk malcontent, and the Bard of Barking hawking his new album.
Though the new record, Tooth & Nail, may hew to domestic and philosophical songs, presented in a calmer, pedal-steel-drenched Americana style, Bragg remains plenty provocative in concert.
The show's framework ensured that -- starting with "Ideology" from 1987's Talking with the Taxman about Poetry and ending with an updated version of "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" from 1988's Workers Playtime.
Bragg himself joked about why it took 30 years to perform a show here, saying that to avoid being pigeonholed as a leftist political songwriter, it's necessary to get out and play places like Phoenix. Then he made sure to stick some poignant in-song commentary on the area's unfortunate politics into "All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose," shouting over the closing notes, "Can you hear me, Joe? Woody Guthrie says hi."
After "Ideology," Bragg talked about his recent visit and shows at Austin's SXSW festival, saying that he encountered an unsettling amount of "hipster ambiguity" relative to the political and economic winds of the day. That's the key to Tooth & Nail's "No One Knows Nothing Anymore," he said.
Guthrie's presence first showed up on "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" from Mermaid Avenue, Bragg's 1998 collaboration with Wilco and the first record that dove into the vast lyrical archive left behind by America's greatest folk singer.
Though Bragg never touched any of the songs Guthrie recorded himself during the two-volume Mermaid Avenue project, he turned to "I Ain't Got No Home" as inspiration for starting his latest album. Saying the 70-year-old-plus song could've been written any time during the past five years, Bragg launched into his new, soulful version of the song, describing the rich bankers and gamblers and the poor workers that exist now as they did in Guthrie's day.
The sharpest part of the night was the mid-set interlude of solo electric guitar songs -- the beyond-satisfying trio of "The Milkman of Human Kindness," "To Have and to Have Not" and "Levi Stubbs Tears," songs from Bragg's early days -- that many in the crowd waited decades to see performed live.
Bragg returned to Guthrie and Tooth & Nail tunes after welcoming back his new band -- Luke Bullen on drums, Matt Round on bass, Owen Parker on keyboards, and the nimble, versatile CJ Hillman on guitar, mandolin, lap steel and pedal steel. Mimicking the style that producer Joe Henry brought to Tooth & Nail, the band played a somber version of "Valentine's Day Is Over" before jumping into Bragg's latest starkly political effort "There Will Be a Reckoning."
On the day the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing testimony on laws concerning marriage equality, Bragg closed his set with the gay-rights anthem "Sexuality" (co-written with Johnny Marr of The Smiths, from his 1991 album Don't Try This at Home). Like "I Ain't Got No Home," it's a song from the past that has renewed relevance today.
For the encore, Bragg went new, somber, and classic, leading with the single from Tooth & Nail, before playing "Tank Park Salute," his tribute to his late father, and ending on the endlessly vital "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards."
"The enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place is not capitalism or conservatism, but cynicism, our own cynicism," Bragg cautioned at the end. And his 55 years of living that principle makes the damn thing ring true.
Ideology No One Knows Nothing Anymore Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key Do Unto Others All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose I Ain't Got No Home The Space Race Is Over The Milkman of Human Kindness To Have and to Have Not Levi Stubbs' Tears My Flying Saucer Swallow My Pride Over You Valentine's Day Is Over There Will Be a Reckoning Sexuality
Handyman Blues Tank Park Salute Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
Last Night: Billy Bragg at Crescent Ballroom The Crowd: A solid showing for old-school Braggophiles, judging by the sing-alongs and cheers that greeted his mid-set solo run of favorites from back in the early days (not to mention the loooooong meet-and-greet line that Bragg patiently worked through after the show).
Overheard:Shockingly (and pleasantly) little, aside from a chatty couple who thought "Sexuality" was time to stop paying attention. Bragg is one definitely of those shows when I'll bust out the shushing, if necessary.
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Personal Bias: Billy Bragg is an absolute legend in my book. And I had to show him my Woody Guthrie tattoo after the show.
Random Notebook Dump: Courtesy of The Jeff Factor, one of my concert companions: "(Guitarist/pedal steel/mandolin player CJ Hillman) looks like a young Pete Townshend."