“People ask me why I keep writing new songs,” Billy Bragg said to the crowd at the Theater of Living Arts on Monday, Oct. 16.
“I’ll tell you why, in two words: boy bands!”
As a veteran folk singer from London, Bragg has toured the United States numerous times over the past 16 years while never generating an exceptional amount of commercial success. Which is just fine, since he recognizes the importance of artistry and longevity in the music industry as opposed to generating a top-40 hit and fading away a few months later.
Monday night’s performance closed out a tour with Bragg’s new touring band, The Blokes, with whom he’ll record his next original album. The band–featuring keyboardist ‘Sir’ Ian McLagan, formerly of Small Faces and Faces–made for a much livelier show than Bragg has put on in the past. He danced around the stage, appearing sometimes reserved, sometimes awkward, and sometimes just plain silly.
“I’ve begun to accept the fact that I can’t dance,” he said, “but it’s okay that I dance like this, because I’m someone’s dad.”
Much of the night’s set list was culled from the Mermaid Avenue project, Billy’s recent collaborations with alt-country rockers Wilco. For the project, so far two separate CDs, the two artists wrote music to unreleased lyrics by the late folk singer and activist Woodie Guthrie. This brought some countrified instrumentation to the stage. A ripping slide guitar, an electric banjo and a mysterious instrument that resembled a sitar–coupled with the standard guitar, bass, drums and keyboards–breathed new life into some of Mermaid Avenue’s best tracks, such as the twangy “California Stars” and the rollicking “All You Fascists.”
Quite the activist himself, Bragg heavily discussed politics from both sides of the ocean in between songs. However, he was able to put his views in a humorous context, so it wasn’t like watching him up on a soapbox the entire time. Introducing “Christ for President,” he said, “A lot of people in America seem to believe in Bigfoot even though they’ve never seen him.”
He described Sasquatch as a mysterious creature that thrives in the woods of Minnesota, then said, “It’s just like third-party politics, a lot of Americans seem to believe in them, even though they’ve never seen them.” Bragg used wit to advocate a more compassionate, less capitalistic form of government, giving respect to unions and the Green Party.
All in all, it was a very rich evening. Whether it was through humor, politics, or an eclectic, fantastic performance, Billy Bragg and the Blokes managed to strike a chord with everybody in the crowd on some level or another. Which is more than you can say for the Backstreet Boys.