Billy Bragg speaks out in Somerville

A review of Billy Bragg at the Somerville Theatre on October 22

, Staff Writer

While Britain’s Billy Bragg came to the Somerville Theatre on Wednesday night to sing political songs and speak out about political issues, it was the moments that he displayed a vulnerable side rather than a knowing swagger that kept the show from seeming a mere Obama stump.

Though those moments were few and far between, the night began with two of them back to back. "The Milkman of Human Kindness" and it’s sweet couplets kicked things off, and the only thing that held it back was that the sound crew didn’t turn on the main speakers until halfway through the song. That was followed by "A Lover Sings" which was accompanied by a pleasantly crunchy Telecaster sound.

Bragg was all alone onstage all night, only occassionaly switching to an acoustic guitar, and things had a tendancy to feel slightly repetitive, though Bragg kept things loose with plenty of entertaining soliloquies. "Farm Boy" was dedicated to, an organization dedicated to bringing the troops home from the Middle East, and was carried by Bragg’s gruff voice.

Billy was also able to show off another talent, that of between song banter. Responding to one fan who yelled, "Billy! What’s up?" Bragg said, "You are, buddy, in the balcony. It’s gonna be a long night if that’s your opening heckle." It was a relatively long night, with a two-hour set that at times seemed to pull from the same subject matter for every song.

That’s not to say there weren’t highlights. "Upfield", an ode to socialism ("Obama is a socialist," Bragg said rejoicingly) was propulsive and Woody Guthrie via Bragg’s "She Came Along to Me" was beautiful. Bragg joked that since Mermaid Avenue he has "stopped playing the songs Woody wrote before he hooked up with me and Jeff Tweedy." That led to "I Ain’t Got No Home In This World", a song Bragg said "feels like he wrote it next week" given the financial crisis.

"No Power Without Accountability" was very specific in detail and conversational in tone, feeling less like a song and more like a sermon. Then came one of the aforementioned tender moments, the domestic love song "M for Me", during which Bragg presented love as the thing to make it through troubled times instead of a presidential candidate’s economic policies.

Unfortunately that really wasn’t Bragg’s position, and if it was he didn’t spend enough time defending it. Lauren Nyro’s 1968 protest song "Save the Country", which followed an extended speech praising Obama, pushed Bragg’s voice to a welcome, tuneful spot that rendered his excuses ("I lost my voice singing along to the Fleet Foxes") rather unnecessary.

The rant of the night was a travel story involving dirty underwear, Minneapolis, snow, a lost voice, Johnny Clash, and the Somerville Theatre as Bragg told of the origins of "An Old Clash Fan Fight Song". For two and a half minutes it was a one man punk show, as Bragg poured out his energy onto the crowd. "I Keep Faith" followed and was a perfect follow-up in it’s stripped down form.

"Power In the Union" closed out the main set and had everyone clapping and fist-pumping along. He returned to the stage and thanked the crowd, saying, "Last night was good but tonight has been better." "Levi Stubb’s Tears" and& "Sing Their Souls Back Home" provided a soulful one two, the first with its Police meets Springsteen feel and the second with its easy strut.

Things ended on a high note with "New England" which featured the catchy chorus, "I don’t want to change the world / I’m not looking for a new England / I’m just looking for another girl". That sentiment, coming after hours of talk about political change was not exactly true, but it was a welcome moment of release from the dire subjects of the rest of the night. It’s clearly good and necessary to have a socially conscious musician like Bragg stirring things up, it just gets occasionally frustrating that his love songs, which are done so well, are done so infrequently.

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