Friday, 25 May 2012

Billy Bragg at Paradiso, 23 May 2012

I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a New Amsterdam….

Numerous times I have heard Billy Bragg be described as a political singer song writer. After seeing Billy perform again, I have formed the opinion that he is not a political singer song writer but rather a man with a conscience and genuine desire for a better society. Ok, he does not shy away from giving his opinion, but it is at least an informed opinion based on a lot of real thought, and couple that with passionate emotive songs, and you have one hell of an entertaining show in the making.


The evenings gig kicked off with a great performance by Anais Mitchell, a soft whimsically spoken Canadian singer who took the stage on her own and with just a guitar in hand.  When speaking to Billy after the show he was explaining to me how he tries to judge the engagement of the crowd and if he thinks he is losing them, then he will break into something louder on his electric guitar just to make sure that he has everyone’s total attention. Unfortunately for Anais she was only holding an acoustic guitar and some of the crowd’s (nearest to the bar) attention span for this fantastically gifted support act did wane after a few songs. This did not come as a great surprise to me, as I have seen it happen at plenty of shows, but it was still rather disappointing at time. That being said I found Anais’ unique voice to be rather captivating and I did particularly enjoy the version of Bob Dylan’s “A hard rain” towards the end of the set.

Billy stormed on stage, electric guitar in hand and got straight into it. At the end of the first song it was evident to all new comers to a Bragg gig that you get a lot of stories and jokes from the man and his first round of stick started with a dig at the fact that an English football team had just beaten a German team. Furthermore not only had a famous German footballer (Bastian Schweinsteiger) missed a penalty kick to potentially win the game for the German side, but so had a Dutch footballer (Arjen Robben). What a way to poke fun at the crowd who you are about to perform for the next 2 hours to, but thankfully everyone took it in the good humor it was intended.

As expected, Billy made plenty of mention about Woody Guthrie and then performed a beautiful version of “I aint got no home”.  It was not long after this when he explained to the crowed why he drinks his cup a tea during the gig “Throat coat” and how this had been taught to him by Morrissey to much laughter.

A world first came in the form of a live performance of the Iceberg song (Billy told me after the show that he had never performed this song live before). This is a song that he had penned for a BBC program to commemorate 100 years after the sinking of the Titanic. The song, as the title would suggest was the point of view of the disaster from the Iceberg.
Soon after Billy broke into another loquacious preamble about the moment he was heading to tell his son to turn down his amplifier and then realized he was playing one of Billy’s own songs (Milk man of human kindness) which FYI, has a killer opening and Billy nailed exceedingly well. Also everyone there also got a little glimpse into Billy as a dad and how proud he must have been to hear that was the song his son was belting out.

Billy’s version of “The Saturday boy” was very entertaining and whilst he didn’t have the ability to include anyone playing the horns in the later part of the song, he did however include riffs from both The White Strips (Seven nation army) & Deep Purple (Smoke on the water) which got a lot of applause and the well deserved laughter.

Early on in the performance of Levis Stubbs tears (my personal favorite song) a bloke jumped up on stage and put his big arm around him. Billy just kept on playing. When Bill made mention of just being thankful he didn’t kiss him the guy jumped up again and headed towards him.  Billy used his very solid Dyson Guitar to get him off the stage, it was very funny to see.

The evening’s concert rounded out with a good sing along of “New England” which included the Kirsty McColl verse, and all the punters were happy. And finally the self-professed, middle aged Clash fans last punk movement for the evening before leaving the stage was to hurl his spent/ used tea bag into the crowd, oh how very rock and roll it was, no guitars or drumsticks but tea bag chucking!!!

I found myself thinking how the production of Bill’s music appears not to be complicated, after all, it is one man and a couple of guitars, but even still, I couldn’t help but notice that it sounded very good and not far off what the album would sound like. On the way out of the main hall I took the opportunity to have a quick chat to the sound tech/ producer for the evening. It was then that I discovered not only had he been touring and mixing the sound for Billy’s performances for nearly 3 decades, but he also produced Billy’s records as well, so no wonder the sound had been so good.
After the gig I sat on the stairs drinking a beer in the foyer and Billy came out to meet the crowd. I was impressed, here was a man who had just performed a gig and now he was signing as many autographs as were required and was having a personal chat with everyone who wanted to ask or tell him anything. He was so engaged in their questions, and each individual piece of banter with each of the punters was really great to watch. Never once did he give the appearance that he was bored with anyone, rather he would apologise for making them wait so long and then have a laugh and a chat with them.

Once the crowd had dissipated I went up and had a chat, I asked about why he used the Dyson guitar, which is made by Jim Dyson in Melbourne (Australia)? He said that the band members from the Blokes, (who he previously use to play with) used Jims guitars, and introduce Billy to both Jim and inadvertently the guitars. What appears to be special about this guitar is that you can pretty much do anything with it and it stays in tune. This was demonstrated when Billy used it to extricate the punter who had jumped on stage the second time, several solid hits to the guys midriff and cruets and the instrument was still perfectly in key.

As we chatted further, I mentioned that we had gotten some good photos of Anais Mitchell (including the Paradiso stain glass windows) which she might like a copy of and I was looking for where I could email them to? Without battering an eyelid Billy said “send it to me and I will make sure she gets it, and while you are there send me some of me too” I told him I am fine for him to tell me that my photos are rubbish, but somehow I don’t think that he would do that and thankfully I got a couple of good ones.

My favourite part of my conversation with Billy came when I told him about a couple of the songs that he had performed and how they had really touched me. As I mentioned before to you dear reader I have seen Bill play a couple of time before, so I have experienced these songs before, but this time in particular (and maybe because it was in the Paradiso) the hairs on the back of my neck rose whilst listening to him play Levis Stubbs tears and then again when he belted out New England. Therefore I wanted to let him know that whilst I go to gigs every week, that very rarely does this feeling occur, and as I talk to him about his version of New England and about Kirsty McColl it was at that moment I found tears welling up in my eyes. I put this down to the fact that it is very sad when a fantastic performer passes away (and in this case far too young in life, with so much more to give), but then, as I talked to him about her, it dawned on me that he actually knew her, this made it all more real. I just wanted Billy to know that those songs really touched me and I was very thankful I could be there to see them.
Yes, he can be occasionally prone to singing a tad bit flat, and maybe once in a blue moon slightly off key (or is that way over yonder in the minor key?) but this is all quintessential part of the Billy Bragg show, and I for one, love it
Billy is a passionate, charismatic man who in my opinion has written some brilliant tunes. And whilst he is very much the entertainer (cracking jokes or expressing an opinion of a current social issue) I really feel, what you see is what you get with him. I just hope he passes through Amsterdam sometime soon again, and maybe next time I can have an even longer chat with the man.

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