REAL GONE GOES OUT: Billy Bragg – Hall By The Sea, Dreamland, Margate, Kent 10/5/2024

It’s been many years since Billy Bragg last visited Thanet. He confirms this by telling the crowd a really funny story about how, circa 1983, he played a tiny venue in Margate or Broadstairs – the exact details of which are now unclear – and he managed to lock himself in the cellar.

He has no such trouble tonight at Dreamland’s Hall By The Sea, a venue that’s previously hosted some superb gigs, including one by the Levellers on one of the hottest nights ever. A solitary figure in the middle of a large stage, Bragg is as committed to engaging with an audience as his younger self had been, and with tonight’s set being a benefit for Hope Not Hate, he is in a brilliantly outspoken mood.

Things begin rather sedately with a rendition of ‘The Wolf Covers Its Tracks’, received well at the front, but not translating so well near the back of the crowd, but within the first notes of a pleasingly angry ‘To Have & Have Not’, huge sections of the audience sing in unison, some at a volume which surely won’t sustain the next ninety minutes or so. There are people present tonight who’ll have heard Billy hammering his way through this classic forty years ago – and countless times since – but it retains a genuine vigour tonight that ensures it still sounds absolutely vital. The same power comes through the Woody Guthrie-esque ‘Who’s Side Are You On?’, a number originally by The Almanac Singers. With Bragg hammering his electric guitar, his one-man set up shows a great and simplistic edginess that serves the lyrical call to arms brilliantly.

Revisiting a couple of Bragg’s more commercial recordings, the audience receives superb performances of ‘She’s Got A New Spell’ and hit ‘Sexuality’, and the latter takes on a new relevance when Bragg performs his 1991 hit with a few amended lyrics. “You might have noticed a few changes”, he says, confidently. “This song now celebrates our trans friends as well. They need allies. I’ve got a few followers who are around my age and are a bit like ‘Ah, Bill… Do you have to?’ and I say to them, ‘you fought against Thatcher and stood up for the miners in the 80s. You were there when we stood alongside our gay and lesbian friends. What would the 20 year old you think of you now if you didn’t keep lending a voice of support?’…” And he’s right, as ever. He further explains that without a solid army of support the transgender community “will be attacked, and when they can longer stand up, the bigots will come for the gay people again, and then revoke the abortion rights. We’re seeing this happen in America.” Bragg has a genuine knack for delivering the bullet points of the world’s ill-judged socio-political stance, and on this night, he’s pin-sharp, with his extended speeches feeling as important as the messages in the songs themselves. New lyrics or not, ‘Sexuality’ is amazing (“It’s from my disco period”, he jokes), and is a reminder – if one were needed – of how Bragg can inject great melodies into his work, even if the outsider only really recognises him for a pointed political message.

Another hit, ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ reaches the audience in fine form, with pockets of the crowd singing with enthusiasm, but a couple of quieter numbers don’t engage quite so well with people chattering at the back, occasionally masking the finer points of Bragg’s performance. Thankfully, they manage to stay quiet during a beautifully mournful ‘Tank Park Salute’, a reflective performance that’s nothing short of amazing. Dropping into his more soulful vocal, Bragg delivers the eulogy for his father as if it’s the first time; there are moments, even near the back of the crowd, where the attention this has commanded is more than clear. Even as part of an already great gig, this has left an indelible moment to treasure.

Moving towards the end of the main set, Bragg ramps up the energy with a run of tracks that really bring the crowd onside. ‘The Battle of Barking’ (inspired by an unfortunate turn of events in 2006 when the BNP actually scored a seat in the performer’s home town) has a real edge and is prefaced by another impassioned speech, but it’s Bragg’s old fight song ‘There Is Power In A Union’ which really fires up the more vocal element in the audience, before a spiky rendition of Woody Guthrie’s ‘All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose’ plays like a clarion call for the whole evening. Bringing his son – the night’s supporting act, Jack Valero – to the stage, ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’ invokes another mass sing along as if closing a great festival set from the mid 90s, and in taking this slightly more friendly approach, it joins ‘Sexuality’ and ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’ as one of the evening’s crowd pleasers. Not that anything has displeased anyone tonight; Bragg’s ability to structure a set so it ebbs and flows between the rousing, the thoughtful and absolutely angry has been especially on point during this short tour. A one song encore – a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers To Cross’, again featuring Valero – has been chosen very deliberately to descale the mood before everyone leaves the venue, and initially seems to feel a little underwhelming in relation to some of the set’s more direct offerings. However, it’s soon clear that the song’s message – of taking a journey and looking for hope within a troubled world – fits neatly the other themes that have been more than touched on throughout a great night.

As always, this hasn’t been about huge stage theatrics, gimmicks or throwaway moments. The messages in the speeches and songs have come through with sharpness, and Billy, even in a slightly softer vocal form than his 80s and 90s self, has approached the material with the kind of power that a lot of artists of his age have left behind. The setlist has featured very little from the classic ‘Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy’ and nothing from ‘Brewing Up’, but by exploring a broad selection of material from an always interesting forty year journey, Bragg has ensured that pretty much no-one is going home disappointed. Hopefully, they’re also going home feeling a little more fired up.

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Read a review of ‘Bridges Not Walls’ here.
Watch a video of Billy live in Australia here.

May 2024

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