Although he claims that music doesn’t have the power to change anything, Billy Bragg did everything in his power to prove his own works were false. After an hour-long set of tunes taken from The Mermaid Avenue series, he proceeded to inspire the crowd with songs that railed against cynicism, capitalism and greed.
Billy Bragg’s show at the Auckland Town Hall was split into two segments. The first was dedicated to the songs, or the lyrics, of Woody Guthrie, that he wrote music for and recorded with Wilco for the Mermaid Avenue project, overseen by Woody’s daughter Nora.
This year marks Guthrie’s 100th birthday and Bragg has been hopping the globe helping to celebrate the event.
For tonight, he accompanied himself with his acoustic guitar and sang 9 Guthrie songs beginning with Against Th’ Law, from Volume Two of Mermaid Avenue.
Like the recent Rick Wakeman show, Bragg spent as much, if not more, time with his between-song patter, than actually singing the songs. He spoke about Guthrie’s life, his songs and his politics, for the most part keeping the tone light and not overly reverential. Highlights of the first set included Ingrid Bergman and Go Down To The Water, a beautiful song written while Guthrie was serving in the Merchant Marines during World War 2.
After a brief intermission, Billy returned to focus on his own songs. By now he had traded in his acoustic guitar for an electric. Bragg began the second set with To Have And Have Not, from his 1983 debut album, Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy.
After a rousing version of Sexuality, he hit one of the evening’s high point with his pointed and passionate comments against cynicism before launching into Tomorrow Is Going To Be A Better Day from his 2010 EP, Six Songs From Pressure Drop.
Old favourites like Shirley…or Greetings To The New Brunette…Milkman Of Human Kindness and Levi Stubbs’ Tears kept the faithful happy and singing along.
Bragg was at his best and most inspirational when talking about the power of the people and singing songs like There Is Power In A Union, the song that closed the set.
He returned for two more songs, Tank Park Salute, from 1991’s Don’t Try This At Home, and A New England, from 1983’s Life’s A Riot, and dedicated to the late Kirsty MacColl.
While the first set of Guthrie tunes was fine, it was clear that Bragg’s real passion lies with his own songs. It was while singing and talking about them that he was most effective and entertaining. Although to describe his act as “entertaining” seems to be somewhat less than complimentary because, after all these years, songs like Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards, A New England and There Is Power In A Union still need to be heard and still have the power to change the way people think and act…despite what Billy may think.
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Billy Bragg set list:
1. Against Th’ Law
2. She Came Along To Me
3. Ingrid Bergman
4. Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key
6. Go Down To The Water
7. Another Man’s Done Gone
8. My Flying Saucer
9. All You Fascists
1. To Have And Have Not
2. The Price I Pay
4. Tomorrow’s Gonna Be A Better Day
5. Shirley (Greetings To The New Brunette)
6. Must I Paint You A Picture?
7. Never Buy The Sun
8. Milkman Of Human Kindness
9. Levi Stubbs’ Tears
10. I Keep The Faith
11. Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards
12. There Is Power In A Union
13. Tank Park Salute
14. A New England