Billy Bragg and his band played a milestone show last night at London’s Hammersmith Apollo along with special guest Seth Lakeman. There were many highlights to the night and lucky for us Paul Woodgate was there for Folk Radio UK to witness a brilliant evening.
On Soundcloud (and below), you can listen to Billy Bragg introducing Seth Lakeman discussing the stories behind the songs on his latest album, Word Of Mouth. The two artists clearly share a connection, but as a guest slot, it’s an interesting combination of sounds. Word Of Mouth is a fine album, the music almost gothic in its intensity, carved from the industries of 150 years ago and the West Country mythology Lakeman is known for interpreting. You can smell iron ore in the rhythms, feel the heavy horse in the bodhran, the groaning chains holding ships in the harbour in the drone of the fiddle. How will that translate to the live arena?
Very well, as it turns out. Seth takes to the Hammersmith stage just shy of 7:30 in front of two hundred polite Bragg fans; just a fiddle and kick drum to accompany Kitty Jay. As the crowd begins to filter in the band joins him for The Courier. They’re instantly tight, the sound full. Seth is a dynamic frontman, working his fiddle with vigour from the off, imposing his presence and drawing the crowd in. King And Country provides an opportunity to mention an upcoming performance at the Royal Albert Hall on D-Day, Lisbee Stainton’s backing vocals particularly effective, then we get three straight from Word Of Mouth. Last Rider jogs along on a shuffle beat and is heartily applauded, The Wanderer uses the bodhran to nice effect and a Seth-only Portrait Of My Wife is an attempt to get the crowd to join in – it’s a lovely ballad with a great chorus, faithfully reproduced. Cormac Byrne returns for Lady Of The Sea and the full band focuses its energies on High St. Rose, after which there’s time to squeeze in Race To Be King before leaving the stage for Billy.
There’s no doubt such a polished and passionate performance will have won over any potential sceptics or reticence on the part of the audience, made clear by the warm appreciation of the almost full hall at the end. Lakeman’s continued drive to maintain an authentic folk presence in the mainstream with a contemporary feel for the arrangement and production of the material finds its natural home in a live performance and he, and his band, do not disappoint tonight. Top stuff.
Tonight begins on September 14, 1978. Blondie are tearing up the Hammersmith Odeon. In the audience are two people destined to become good friends. For one of them, it’s his first gig, but eventually between the two they will rack up thousands on the way to becoming the music loving comedian Phil Jupitus and the comedy loving, political force-of-nature musician that is Billy Bragg. 36 years later the former introduces the latter to an expectant crowd with a handful of amusing poems, including a coruscating take on that night in ’78 when Jupitus lost his gigging virginity at the feet of Debbie Harry.
Bragg strolls on, gives the big man a hug and to a roar of approval strikes up Sexuality, his crack band of Austin and Nashville players filling out the stage. One from Tooth And Nail and a polite Way Over Yonder In A Minor Key and we’re treated to the first story of the night, about naked audience members in Tasmania. Chasing Rainbows comes and goes and it’s all a little too relaxed – a convivial jam in his living room to a few mates – where’s the bite Billy, I wonder, where’s the edge? I am firmly put back in my box by a passionate appeal concerning the local council elections and rollicking All You Fascists Bound To Lose, the second of four Woody Guthrie numbers. Bragg’s shout of ‘This machine kills Fascists!’ gets the biggest cheer of the night so far.
A dedication to Charing Cross Hospital precedes I Ain’t Got No Home and we appear to be on firmer, more familiar ground. The distinction between the often visceral attack of his 80s tunes and the more measured delivery of Bragg’s older material is one he acknowledges, dismissing his supposed switch to Nashville and pearl snap shirts by describing Americana as ‘Country music for people who like The Smiths’. His attitude towards the media’s obsession with genre is neatly encapsulated by his declaration that he’s always been Country and summarised in one sentence, ‘I’m a folk singer – I’m allowed to wear a f**king beard.’ Warm applause, discussion over, and the gig reaches its tipping point, quickly turning into a last night of the tour party where everyone’s invited to listen to a parade of his best –loved songs. You Woke Up My Neighbourhood, Levi Stubbs Tears, Little Time Bomb, The Saturday Boy (just Bragg and his old mucker Woody on trumpet) and Which Side Are You On? gain ever more delirious crowd participation, interspersed with Jupitus returning to sing his Bragg spoof/homage Bestiality. A wonderful Greetings To The New Brunette, an anti-UKIP rant, the Springsteen-like There Will Be A Reckoning, a mellow, clever Handyman Blues; it’s a lesson in musical diversity with memorable melodies and sing-along hooks.
[pullquote]the tame beginning is long forgotten in the rush of warmth and comradeship that washes over the Apollo[/pullquote]We’ve been spoilt already, but the gig moves into another gear with a bizarre story about Woody’s wife wanting Kraftwork to interpret Guthrie’s songs for Mermaid Avenue; ‘She wanted a European take on American roots music’. An ominous synth note rings out across the hall introducing the opening chords of A New England. Cue laughter followed by pandemonium and a chance for Billy to rest his vocal chords, the almost sold-out crowd lifting the ceiling. Accident Waiting To Happen closes the set and the tame beginning is long forgotten in the rush of warmth and comradeship that washes over the Apollo.
There are few surprises in the encores. A vocal only rendering of The Internationale and I Don’t Need This Pressure Ron are followed by The Milkman Of Human Kindness. There Is Power In A Union is dedicated to Bob Crow. The crowd have gone bonkers. Tank Park Salute is almost wistful, Waiting For The Great Leap Forward is joyful and A13, Trunk Road To The Sea is a triumphant shambles of back-slapping, playing to the audience, lump-in-throat, memories-are-made-of- this music.
Billy Bragg; grey militant, fist-in-the-air folkie, political Country boy, soppy old sod. Brilliant.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Whilst we’ve no footage from last night it seemed as good a time as any to share this from Record Store Day 2014:
• Kitty Jay
• The Courier
• King And Country
• Last Rider
• The Wanderer
• Portrait Of My Wife
• Lady Of The Sea
• High St. Rose
• Race To Be King
• Seth Lakeman
• Ben Nicholls (double bass)
• Cormac Byrne (percussion)
• Jack Rutter (guitar)
• Lisbee Stainton (banjo / backing vocals)
• Phil Jupitus – Poetry
• No One Knows Nothing Anymore
• Way Over Yonder In A Minor Key
• Chasing Rainbows
• All You Fascists Bound To Lose
• I Ain’t Got No Home
• You Woke Up My Neighbourhood
• Bestiality (with Phil Jupitus)
• Levi Stubbs Tears
• Little Time Bomb
• The Saturday Boy (with Woody)
• Which Side Are You On?
• Goodbye, Goodbye
• Greetings To The New Brunette
• There Will Be A Reckoning
• Handyman Blues
• California Stars
• A New England (Kraftwork remix!)
• Accident Waiting To Happen
• The Internationale
• I Don’t Need This Pressure Ron
• The Milkman Of Human Kindness
• There Is Power In A Union
• Tank Park Salute
• Waiting For The Great Leap Forward (with Frank Turner)
• A13, Trunk Road To The Sea (with Phil Jupitus and Woody)