The last time Billy pulled up a pew (in 2013), it turned into a CD and DVD release. Yesterday, a rumour that old comrade Wiggy would turn up to add a little extra magic to the encores didn’t bear fruit, but it was immaterial; as is often the case at the Union Chapel, there was magic enough to go around without special guests.
Bragg’s not released new material since 2013s Country-inflected Tooth And Nail, but a lifetime on the road translates into healthy crowds regardless, and when the opportunity to see him up close and personal in a 900 seater comes along, ‘sold out’ gets splashed across the notices without too much trouble. Partisan doesn’t begin to describe the audience then, but Bragg could work a sponsored silence into a fervour and he goes to work straight away, pulling ‘A Lover Sings’ and ‘Upfield’ out of the back catalogue to open the set, the trademark stabs at his guitar as punchy as ever even if the silhouette behind the six-string is marginally more comfortable in its skin than the Red Wedge warrior of old.
The evening is peppered with moments that allow Bragg to voice strident opinions on everything from the Republican nominee race in the States to Corbyn and the refugee crisis in Europe. Each topic is married to an appropriate song or story, but more than ever Bragg’s polemic is cleverly woven into the rhetoric of his polar twin, the entertainer and balladeer who mercilessly ribs pedal steel sidekick C J Hillman or pokes fun at his own age. He moves seamlessly from hipster beards to impassioned diatribe.
‘Distant Shore’ is introduced by acknowledging the loss of Nick Alexander at the Bataclan in Paris twelve days earlier. ‘The Unwelcome Guest’ allows for a Woody Guthrie’s story. The brilliant Anais Mitchell cover ‘Why We Build The Wall’ is a fierce riposte to xenophobes and NIMBY’s everywhere. Incredulity at the lack of common-sense shown in the media is an ever present, and spleen is reserved for politicians of all colours, so disgust at a recent red-top’s front cover results in a particularly crestfallen ‘Never Buy The Sun’, perhaps frustrated by the lack of progress in that particular struggle.
The lighter moments are sometimes quite beautiful. Hillman’s pedal steel additions to ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ add a poignant twang and similar service via a Resonator boosts ‘Handyman Blues’. The real tinder is kept dry for the end, though, as the ballads make way for a final quartet that raises fists in the air as much as it does lumps in throats. ‘I Keep Faith’ is given to the crowd like a benediction; ‘Power In A Union’ is strong and spat out with as much relevance as the day it was written. There are two encores, a wonderful ‘Between The Wars’ – ‘Call up the craftsmen / Bring me the draftsmen / Build me a path from cradle to grave / And I’ll give my consent to any government / That does not deny a man a living wage‘ – and an ardent ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forward’, coda lyrics tweaked as usual to reflect the news of the day.
The Union Chapel is a perfect venue for Bragg to ply his trade. Below the rose window his secular or otherwise beliefs continue to shine through. He refuses, despite his ascendancy through the musical hierarchy, to kow tow to that comfortable middle-of-the-road offered by security. His oratory is never forced and we feel no pressure to bend to his opinion, but the power of a simply articulated position is difficult to ignore. Passion, comedy, truth and tunes. Magic.