Billy Bragg @ Fremantle Arts Centre
with Elli Schoen
Thursday 27 April and Friday, April 28
Billy Bragg is one of a kind. Whilst he is a serious political and social activist and theorist, he is also incredibly funny and relatable. Playing two shows late last week provided an intriguing contrast as he was interviewed by local luminary Lucky Oceans for Fremantle Arts Centre’s Sonic Sessions series on Thursday night and performed a more traditional headline show to a much bigger crowd on the main lawn on Friday.
Both proved beautiful settings for Bragg with still, clear, warm nights making way for two magical evenings. Both nights he arrived early for his sets, bouncing onto the stages, remarkably youthful and healthy looking. How genuinely warm and optimistic he is, is perhaps surprising given his politically left leanings in a world of Trumps, Hansons and Brexits.
The courtyard on Thursday night in particular was the perfect setting for a Q&A with Bragg, being intimate and welcoming, just like the man himself. He was accompanied by Lucky Oceans who himself has a natural presence and voice so deep and velvety he would be at home hosting his own talk show. Oceans also reappeared a Friday night’s show, which was supported by fast rising local songstress Elli Schoen.
Thursday saw Bragg grab his guitar to start the set before admitting he had forgotten the lyrics. He strummed the guitar and hummed some keys before asking the audience, “does anyone know the first line?” Half the crowd recited the lyrics to him as the other half chuckled in laughter. It became apparent Bragg forgets his lyrics quite often; on Friday night there was also some gags about forgotten lyrics and chords.
This dialogue between Bragg and the audience on both nights created an inclusive feel and set the scene for what he is all about: inclusiveness, togetherness and the welcoming of all people. He loves nothing more than telling a story or a joke, other than perhaps conversing with people, with both shows being full to the brim of banter between him and the front line audience, funny anecdotes, heart felt and impassioned stories, and self-deprecating jokes.
Thursday night saw Bragg talking to Oceans about how he regularly visits prisons in England and gives the prisoners guitars and teaches them to play. He is especially moved by the remand prison in Brixton, where potentially innocent people can spend years in jail because they can’t afford bail.
Bragg has a huge sense of empathy and justice and he made clear his position on education, healthcare and physiological needs, saying he believes it is the job of the wealthy and the government to make these things available to all people – this is what he calls “organised compassion”. An especially impassioned plea he made to the crowd was, “If you teach prisoners how to read and write our society will be a safer place,” which was met with cheers and yelps of agreement from the crowd.
Throughout both the Sonic Sessions and Friday night’s set, Bragg talked indirectly about bout how he is a proud socialist as well as an optimist at heart. He says in being an optimist that he still finds himself needing to kick cynicism and division to the curb. Telling the crowd not to give in to the Daily Mails of the world that want to divide us, instead he encouraged us to come together in solidarity.
Whilst Thursday night focused on legal injustice, Friday night focused on displacement. Between songs, Bragg told the audience Australia is no better than the US or Britain as instead of building a wall we hide our evil doings on a pacific island, and that sooner or later climate change will bring refugees to our shores and we need to be ready to welcome them.
Throughout both sets, Bragg spent the beginning working through his newer catalogue, with songs from Tooth and Nail, Mermaid Avenue and Mr Love and Justice. Through the middle he delved into some covers with Thursday seeing Woody Guthrie’s Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key and Slip Knot as well as Lonnie Donnigan’s Long Island. Friday night saw more Guthrie covers and an improvised cover of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ which included targeted new lyrics about the treatment of refugees.
The second part of the sets saw Bragg go through some golden oldies, with classics like There Is Power In A Union, Must I Paint You A Picture, with Thursday night ending in Waiting For The Great Leap Forward and Friday night on A New England.
As much as Bragg discusses society and politics seriously, he also showcases his down to earth personality, often making quips at his own expense, like when his voice broke during the a high part of a song and he joked, “Gee, I am just like bloody Adele up here aren’t I?” or when he noted that, “Americana is country music for people who like The Smiths”.
It’s rare to go to a concert where you can be moved to action through speech and music and also find yourself constantly laughing out loud. But somehow, that is what a Billy Bragg show does to you.
He moves around his guitar and the stage like they are an extension of himself, completely free and at ease, unafraid to make mistakes. It’s a lonely stage for only one man and a guitar but Bragg proves he can fill it effortlessly, with his warmth, personality, wit, intelligence and talent.
Bragg’s voice is as sharp as it ever was and it hasn’t lost its minimalistic, raw appeal. His ability to tell stories is second to none, as is his skill as a profound wordsmith and deliverer. His insightful musings both spoken and in his music ensure he stays relevant in a fast moving world and an even faster moving musical landscape.
Photos by Linda Dunjey