Thursday, November 19th, 2009
Billy Bragg and Ron Hawkins at The Phoenix in Toronto
A: Who cares? Any time you get the opportunity to see Billy Bragg live, you take it, no questions asked.
Of course, I say that having missed his last three appearances in Toronto – the September 2006 show at the Music Hall for not one but two weddings, the June 2008 in-store at HMV because I was working and the show that same night at Harbourfront for no reason I can recall. So Tuesday night’s show at the Phoenix marked the first occasion I’d see him perform since March 2006; in other words, far too long. The fact that this tour was somewhat without context was extra exciting, because the two proper shows of his I’d seen before were great but a little too rich with context – the 2006 show was to promote his Volume 1 box set and as such, only included material from that era and the July 2003 show at the El Mocambo was part of his “Talkin’ Woody” tour and as such, was almost 100% Woody. So it goes without saying that there was a LOT of material I’d been waiting a long, long time to hear live.
Support for the tour was perfectly chosen, with none other than hometowner Ron Hawkins – former frontman for my beloved Lowest Of The Low – kicking things off. It was an eminently logical choice as The Low and Bragg had played together back in the ’90s and Hawkins’ sharp folk-punk songwriting owes Bragg more than a few debts. Performing solo and acoustic, Hawkins showcased material from his new album 10 Kinds Of Lonely amidst some great banter, a tune from his other old outfit The Rusty Nails and a gorgeous and unexpected cover of Ryan Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina”. Damn, Adams had the goods before he lost his mind. And Hawkins, happily, still does. He plays a show at the Dakota Tavern tonight before hitting the road out west with Bragg.
I’ve never seen Billy Bragg play with a band, but having heard live recordings of he with The Blokes, I’m perfectly fine with that. Not that they sound bad – not at all – but when it comes down to it, all Bragg needs is an electric guitar. And a cup of tea. Kicking things off with the oldest of the old school “World Turned Upside Down” before leaping ahead to a sublime pair of those aforementioned never-heard-live tunes from Don’t Try This At Home – “Accident Waiting to Happen” and “Cindy of A Thousand Lives”. Yeah, this was going to be a good night. At first, however, it seemed that Billy might disagree. Though sounding fine, he seemed a bit distracted or even perturbed at first – at least not the gregarious rabble-rouser he usually was.
A few songs in, when he got chattier, he revealed one of the reasons for his mood – just a couple days prior, it was announced that the execrable leader of the ultra-right British National Party, Nick Griffin, was going to be running for Parliament in Bragg’s very own home riding of Barking – the sort of news would drive any sensible person up the wall, let alone one as politically-minded and leftist as Bragg. He quickly got into proper form, however, and that along with myriad other injustices in the world – politicians, bankers, the military, North American football (or “runny runny catchy”, as he called it) – were called out and used as fuel for his performance.
As always, his between-song banter was as essential a part of the show as the songs themselves, and while we didn’t get a Morrissey story this time out, but there were fine tales about Woody Guthrie’s tumescence (with regards to “Ingrid Bergman”), his reaction to the misreported death of Margaret Thatcher, guitar quotes of “Seven Nation Army” and “Smoke On The Water” during the implied trumpet solo in “The Saturday Boy” and a profanity-riddled reading of poet John Cooper Clarke’s “Evidently Chickentown” to name but a few high points.
For all the funning, though, Bragg never travels without a message or two and those were well conveyed through anthems like “NPWA” and “O Freedom”, the latter introduced with a pointed comment about Canada’s handling of the Omar Khdar affair. But rather than accuse and criticize, Bragg was aware that he was largely preaching to the converted with the mostly-packed Phoenix audience and devoted most of his efforts to inspiring and mobilizing, decrying cynicism as the real enemy. To punctuate the point, the main set wrapped with a rousing run of “All You Fascists”, “I Keep Faith” and “There Is Power In A Union”. Heady stuff, indeed.
And it wasn’t done. Coming back out for the encore almost as soon as he stepped off stage, Bragg would do his own version of the “Don’t Look Back” movement of playing complete albums live, running through his debut mini-album Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy almost in sequence, saving “A New England” for the grand, singalong finale to two glorious hours of Bragg. The absence of “St. Swithin’s Day” or anything from Worker’s Playtime was a bit disappointing, but for someone with a catalog as deep as Bragg’s there’s just no way to satisfy everyone. The only answer, I suppose, is for him to keep coming back – no excuse needed.
JAM and Panic Manual were also in attendance at the show. The Scope, Vue, FFWD, Canada.com, See, JAM and The Coast have all been conducting interviews with Bragg as he travels the country. Ron Hawkins gets some attention from Vue and Buffalo News.
Photos: Billy Bragg, Ron Hawkins @ The Phoenix – November 17, 2009
MP3: Billy Bragg – “I Keep Faith”
MP3: Billy Bragg – “Take Down The Union Jack”
MP3: Billy Bragg – “Must I Paint You A Picture?”
MP3: Billy Bragg – “Valentine’s Day Is Over” (live)
Video: Billy Bragg – “NPWA”
Video: Billy Bragg – “The Boy Done Good”
Video: Billy Bragg – “Sexuality”
Video: Billy Bragg – “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward”
Video: Billy Bragg – “You Woke Up My Neighbourhood”
Video: Billy Bragg – “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”
MySpace: Billy Bragg
MySpace: Ron Hawkins
Rogue Wave have set a March 2 release date for their new record Permalight.