2013 marked British singer/songwriter and activist Billy Bragg’s 30th year recording as a solo artist. For Bragg, it has been a long but very accomplished career. After starting out in the late 1970s in punk rock band Riff Raff and then leaving music briefly for a stint in the British Army in 1981, he got back into music as a more punk-and-politically inspired folk rocker around 1982 and took just himself and his electric guitar to joints around London. In 1983, he turned his demos into a short but influential debut record, Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy, which was locally released that June.
On June 5, 2013, Bragg, accompanied with a full band, played a very special show at the Union Chapel in London. Tomorrow, April 15, marks the official Cooking Vinyl release of that show, titled Live at the Union Chapel, as a CD/DVD package (and as a shorter, MP3-only release at digital stores like Amazon.com). The CD and main portion of the DVD both have identical 19-song setlists, but the DVD package (which has Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Dolby Digital 5.1 for audio) contains several postcards, and on the DVD itself, off-stage interview excerpts between songs throughout the show. It also has some great extras/bonus features that will be mentioned later and that will surely please many longtime fans – and therefore definitely make them want to seek this release out. This review focuses on the main concert DVD portion I was given to review.
The show starts off with a warm, full-band rendition of Bragg’s ode to Bob Dylan, “Ideology” (on which the latter is credited as co-writer on 1986’s Talking with the Taxman about Poetry). With organ and piano licks blending in beautifully with electric and acoustic guitars, you could almost picture Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers doing a version as soft and jangly as this.
Bragg spends some portion of the DVD going into Storytellers mode, either giving some background on songs like the anti-Margaret Thatcher solo acoustic classic “Between the Wars” or engaging in some rather self-deprecating humor (about his beard hiding “a multitude of chins”). He also performs seven songs from his latest (and country-tinged folk) album, 2013’s Tooth & Nail. His country material is not always my favorite on here but the highlight of that bunch is the acoustic, finger-picked beauty and mournful pedal steel guitar of “Goodbye, Goodbye.” The old-time country/folk flavor on here and other newbies like “Do Unto Others” is not so different from the two Mermaid Avenue albums he recorded with the brilliant Wilco (using previously unheard lyrics by Woody Guthrie) in 1998 and 2000.
The rest of the 19 songs have a very good balance of back catalog favorites from at least a handful of his albums from the 1980s and 1990s/early 2000s. These include the aforementioned “Between the Wars,” the blue collar/working class-supporting classic “There Is Power in a Union,” “Sexuality,” and a few selections from the Mermaid Avenue releases, including the upbeat “My Flying Saucer,” the overtly political “All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose,” and “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.”
With a shout-out to “Free Pussy Riot!,” and fresh takes on the new and the old, as well as a full encore (100% solo) performance of his debut 17-minute-long ’83 album as part of the bonus material, Bragg’s latest live release manages to be both contemporary and excitedly nostalgic. To add to this point, there are bonus videos for newer material like “Handyman Blues” and “No One Knows Nothing Anymore,” and three live non-Union Chapel performances, including perhaps his most well-known song, “A New England” (live at Wembley). So if you’re counting, that’s TWO performances of “A New England” you get on the bonus portion of the DVD when you include his solo run through it as part of his surprise encore performance of his first album (which also includes fan favorite “To Have and to Have Not”).
All in all, Billy Bragg and his bandmates are top-notch musicians, and this over two-and-a-half-hour performance demonstrates that as well as the fact that over 30 years of writing songs about love and politics hasn’t slowed down Bragg’s passion or creativity one iota. Bragg follows in the footsteps of his idols like Dylan and Guthrie gracefully, and like those before him, he engages in social and political commentary in and between songs with none of the partisan turn-offs that are so common elsewhere today, at least here in America. It’s a tribute to his talent and unquestioned authenticity. It’s a job well done.
No word on vinyl availability but seeing is believing, so my recommendation is to get the full CD+DVD package, starting tomorrow at your favorite record store.
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