It is May Day. All day marches and demonstration have taken place in the UK in the grand tradition of British dissent and struggle. In the previous 48 hours, London has been held at a standstill by striking tube workers demanding that people’s jobs not be replaced by machines at ticket offices.
Even after Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and facing a surge in fascistic and xenophobic politics in the shape of UKIP’s momentum-gathering European election campaign, it is clear British people are not satisfied with profit and wealth as the chief values that guide their society. Something is stirring, and it reaches into the nation’s past as much as it reaches into the unstable future.
Comedian Phil Jupitus introduced Billy Bragg, testament to the singer’s growing habit of sending himself up and not taking his own polemical image too seriously. “I am known for being an artist of the struggle,” Bragg later says, “but there is another struggle as important as the political one, and that is the struggle to maintain relationships with the ones closest to you.”
This refocus onto the heart as well as the mind, is reflected in Bragg’s current band, complete with stand up bass and pedal steel guitar. The music, inevitably has a distinctive Country flavour, though Bragg himself admits to an awkwardness about being labeled an ‘Americana’ artist.
“Americana is country music for people who like The Smiths,” he says, joking with the crowd.
Nevertheless, his debt to America is clear and unhidden. Though his Barking drawl and his punky chords forever tie him to a particular British, or English, social context, there is a love of rockabilly, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Hank Williams evident in his current work.
Woody Guthrie, whose unpublished music he famously released with new the band Wilco, still features prominently in his performances. All You Fascists Bound to Loose, Way Over Yonder in The Minor Key, Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore (whom he dedicated to the workers and locals of Charring Cross Hospital that are facing eviction to be replaced by luxury flats), and California Stars all play a part in the performance. To add the Guthrie-esque conscience of the evening, as part of his (first) encore Bragg dedicated Joe Hill’s There’s Power In the Union to the late Bob Crow.
However, the cross-Atlantic influence does not stop with Guthrie. The adorable Handyman Blues is straight up Hank Williams. It takes a very subtle combination of self-deprecating wit and performance power to pull off that old-timey American style and Billy Bragg lays it down with confidence and tenderness. At once paying homage to past masters without falling into false Americanisms, he establishes a connection between worlds. Old and new, Old Country and Emigrant, lover and beloved. Even with the band Bragg’s sound is uncluttered, simple and accessible. At the same time you learn something, and you come away with a sense of pride in your own goodness.
Other highlights were when Bragg played without the band, recounting his hits “just like the old days” and creating an intimate singalong with his hard-core followers. Dare I say it but the nostalgia was tangible, and at certain moments you could be forgiven for thinking this was Thatcher’s Britain, and that there was a battle outside raging.
The truth is, Britain is not too different from those chaotic and divisive days. Despite Cameron’s so-called Big Society, and the Tony Blair’s legacy of corporate sponsored upward mobility, a look at the day’s papers is enough to convince you that inequality and freedom are still the central concerns of British people. After decades of complacency and living off the fat of the land, a post-financial-crisis Britain is slowly waking up to the fraudulent nature of the social ideals they have been spoon-fed through media bombardment and spin doctoring.
An encore acapella version of the Internationale roused more than a scattering of fists in the mostly early middle-aged crowd. Bringing on Phil Jupitus again and this time Frank Turner, a highlight of the second encore was The Great Leap Forward. The uplifting chorus of the audience showed not only that Billy Bragg is still the nation’s favourite troubadour, but that his politics and musical sensitivities are more relevant than they ever were.
In the Eighties, he spoke to a people decimated by industrial collapse. Now, people’s lives are still as vulnerable. Personal integrity and dignity of human relationships continue to be challenged by economic powers and vested interests. The difference between then and now, is not people’s apathy, it is not new levels of personal wealth. The only difference is that post-Blair the face of the enemy is hidden behind social media distractions and a popular culture of license and exploitation that wears the mask of freedom.
People are not as stupid as their governments would like to believe. People care more about each other than the experts and scientific demagogues likes to propose. Despite the doom prophets and nay-sayers, Billy Bragg’s continued success starkly shows that the British Isles is home to a people who are engaged, inclusive and who care very deeply about their communities and their country.
Photo © Kris Krug, licensed for use under Creative Commons