El Rey, June 10, 2008
Photos by Timothy Norris
When Billy Bragg takes the stage in front of the surprisingly packed crowd at the El Rey, he seems ready for business and launches into a couple early gems: "This Guitar Says Sorry," with a slashingly brutal Bo Diddley rhythm and its devastating couplet, "The time that it takes to make a baby, Can be the time it takes to make a cup of tea."
He follows it up with "The Warmest Room" from 1986's Talking With the Taxman About Poetry. Bragg's alone on stage in a light blue shirt with a sliver guitar and a couple of amps. No drums, no band, nothing adorning the stage. His voice sounds strong, with no less passion or anger than when he started singing it more than twenty years ago. That's got to be a hard thing to do when you've watched the paths the politicians have guided us down over the past decade.
But it's clear Bragg's optimistic, excited and energized by the crowd, his new work and maybe even what might happen in America later this year.
When I go see singers from my youth, it's not often that I wait to hear "the new stuff." Billy Bragg has more than enough classic songs to fill an evening, and I'd love to hear them all. But there's strong medicine on his new album, Mr. Love & Justice, his first in more than six years. "Farm Boy," told from the point of view of a soldier in Iraq who joined the Army for a steady paycheck, but is now just praying to get home, is one of the best of the bunch, musically and in its message.
Bragg's completely comfortable up there -maybe a little too comfortable. He's in a talkative mood, and not just about politics. There's a long, tangent-filled story about tea, a nod to the Lakers first win of the finals, driving through Washington, and the double entendres in Woody Guthrie songs among a dozen other topics.
But the pairing of his brand new song "Mr. Love & Justice" into the classic "Greetings to the New Brunette" shows that Bragg's muse is back in top form. He does take a bit of playful offense at the recent show preview that appeared in this week's LA Weekly. In it, Paul Rogers referred to him as "one of those supposedly long-extinct prehistoric fish being dragged from the depths by some unsuspecting fisherman." Paul's probably got a point. If Americans are more politically engaged now than they have been in years, we still don't generally want to be lectured to in our music, present company excluded.
An impassioned speech about Barack Obama, political cynicism, and proving the world wrong about America's motives in the world gets strong applause, and leads into
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the soulful "I Keep Faith." There are half a dozen more songs I'd love to stick around for in case they get played, but it's late. The world could use Billy Bragg right now as an antidote against apathy and powerlessness. It's good to have him back and hopefully he'll find some new converts to preach to.