Mixing Pop & Politics

“It’s surprising how quick a little rain can clear the streets,” sang Billy Bragg on a wonderful rendition of The Saturday Boy at Dolan’s last night. The Limerick streets are used to rain, of course, and if they were empty on a Monday night it was because everyone was at the Warehouse to welcome the Bard of Barking to town for the first time. It’s hard enough to get people to come out any night to see a solo singer backing himself on guitar, but it was a testament to his standing that he attracted a full crowd on a cold and wet Monday night in October. I got to Dolan’s early and filled my stomach with some tasty Guinness stew and later washed it down with pints of porter in the Warehouse as I joined some friends to check out the opening act. Paddy Nash hails from Derry and he did a fine job warming up the crowd. He was quite comfortable with the audience and explained that he had walked out on his job in the film industry when they wouldn’t give him the week off to follow Billy around the country. A song called Billy Bragg Jeans was inspired by a story Paddy heard about Billy buying a pair of jeans for a few quid in a charity store. He also gave us a song called Rubber Bullets that was sung from the perspective of a child growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. His best song, and the one the audience enjoyed the most, was called Ballad of a Nobody. This was a witty song that told the story of an average man with an average life and had everybody in stitches as its key line was repeated each time

Billy Bragg took the stage to a warm Limerick welcome around half past nine. He raised a cup of tea to the audience and appropriately began the set with the opening track from his Brewing Up With Billy Bragg album. It Says Here gave way to two more early songs in To Have and Have Not and A Lover Sings. Many more songs from his first four albums were scattered throughout the night and Billy often took a step back on these and let the audience take over on vocals. I was one of many voices that belted out the choruses of The Milkman of Human Kindness and, with Billy switching to acoustic guitar, Sexuality. Halfway through, he delivered a trio of Woody Guthrie songs that opened with a passionate version of I Ain’t Got No Home. This was followed by a couple of fine takes on Ingrid Bergman and Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key from Mermaid Avenue. We were also treated to a number of songs from a new album that Billy has just released. Fight Songs is a collection of eleven tunes that Billy made available on his website over the previous decade and he performed two of those last night. He had a go at Manchester City FC before launching into Last Fight to Abu Dhabi and later appeased fans of Liverpool FC with his critique of tabloid culture, Never Buy the Sun. You see, you don’t just get songs at a Billy Bragg concert. You also get a standup comedy show and a political rally. Billy was in fine form all night and got more laughs out of the audience than many comedy shows I’ve attended. Some of his most amusing material included his views on this weekend’s football results, the impending Irish Presidential election and Mick Hucknall

He was also passionate about his politics and made many articulate and persuasive talks about the the world in which we live. It says a lot about the poor state of our political system that he made a lot more sense in between his songs than some politicians do in an entire career. He urged us to be more positive about our own place in society in Tomorrow’s Going to Be a Better Day. It appears on an EP called Six Songs from Pressure Drop and I bought it along with Fight Songs for a combined total of just €11. I also bought a t-shirt and a tea towel and you can see my Bragg swag pictured above. After some more audience participation that included Greetings to the New Brunette and the traditional Power in a Union, Billy went off to a tumescent reception from everyone in Dolan’s. He came back to play an encore of two contrasting songs to close the show. Tank Park Salute was delivered to a (mostly) attentive audience. It’s one of Billy’s most powerful songs and I found it hard not to be moved by his autobiographical tribute to his father. That cathartic moment paved the way for the whole place to belt out A New England, including the verse that Billy wrote for Kirsty MacColl. The streets of Limerick were still wet as we left Dolan’s, but it certainly didn’t dampen the spirits of anyone at the gig. My friend John and I have now seen Billy play four Irish cities and we both agreed that this was his best performance and the one with the best interaction from the crowd. Hopefully this will be the first of many visits by Billy to the city. Here’s his rendition of a famous Irish poem by Patrick Kavanagh that was put to music by Luke Kelly and that Billy counts amongst his favourite songs

Raglan Road – Billy Bragg

Keeping It Peel

In 1983, Billy Bragg was finding it hard to get his music heard on the radio. One night he was listening to John Peel’s influential radio show, when he heard the great DJ announce that he was feeling a bit peckish. So, Billy rushed to the studio with a mushroom biryani and a copy of his first collection of songs, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy. Peel accepted the food and the record and, apparently, played one of the tracks (though at the wrong speed). I don’t know how true this story is, but I’m sure Peel would have played Billy’s records anyway. He went on to record a number of Peel Sessions over the years. Today is the seventh anniversary of John Peel’s passing and the folks over at Keeping It Peel are asking bloggers and users of social media to write about Peel and the bands he championed. I’d like to offer this review of Billy Bragg’s first gig in Limerick and these two Peel Session cover versions by Billy. Be sure to pop over to Keeping It Peel during the day

Jeane (The Smiths cover) – Billy Bragg

Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend (John Cale cover) – Billy Bragg

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