On a drizzly Monday night in Hindmarsh, Billy Bragg’s return to South Australia has all the jubilant qualities of sneaking out on a school night while your parents are out of town.
For the sold out crowd, the looming ANZAC Day public holiday means singing their voices hoarse won’t be a problem in the office the next day. Bragg on the other hand finds himself playing a rare solo show in the midst of a genteel-sounding international tour with Joe Henry that sees the pair venerably revisiting old folk classics of the railroad in front of large sit-down auditoriums. By comparison, the opportunity to plug in, loosen up and dig into the back catalogue with a vocal, somewhat beery pub crowd is something that Bragg has, in his words, been “gagging for”.
He wastes no time, dedicating his opening cover of Woody Guthrie’s All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose to the not-quite-vanquished French Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. He introduces the next song as a “startling critique of the capitalist system”. Before anyone can ask him to narrow it down a bit please, he’s tearing into 1988’s The Price I Pay. A few songs later his well-worn cover of 1983 Smiths B-side Jeane leads into Johnny Marr collaboration Sexuality. It’s a 26 year old call to equality that, for all its bluntness, should have been consigned to the past years ago. Somewhat depressingly, it’s as pertinent as ever against a backdrop of Safe Schools witch hunts and visits from prominent international homophobe Mike Pence.
Unsurprisingly, contemporary events rear their head throughout the night, from Bragg’s Trump-referencing rework of The Times They Are A Changin’ (“The climate is obviously changing” is a great line) to a cover of Anias Mitchell’s Why Do We Build The Wall, first heard by Bragg at an Occupy protest. It all comes to a head as Bragg grapples aloud with the reality that between Brexit-voting Britain, offshore camp-running Australia and Trump-electing America, none of us can lay claim to any moral high ground.
Ultimately, Bragg explains, it’s a war on empathy, as caring and compassion are dismissed as “virtue signalling” by the latest incarnation of the same old Right that rears its head with every generation. It’s what makes the work of musicians like Bragg, people who deal in empathy, so important and challenging.
This might sound like the very episode of Q&A you’d leave the house on a Monday night to escape, but Bragg is generally far more fun than anything hosted by Tony Jones. He’s also visibly having a ball, musing to the crowd “Am I indulging you or are you indulging me?” as he peppers excellent tunes like Levi Stubbs’ Tears and The Milkman of Human Kindness with jokes about binge watching The Last Kingdom and losing track of his crowds’ age demographics. He muses about embracing new ideals of masculinity as he, and many of his fans, approach that age where DIY home reno projects replace hangover recovery as typical public holiday past times (“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” he says, “and admit that we are never going to be as good at that shit as our dads were.”).
He has such a good time that this gig, foolishly envisioned as a brisk 17-song set, ends up closer to 30. Bragg sheepishly admits to the back ache and sore throat he’ll have brought upon himself tomorrow, and asks that we not tell his management. But looking around the room as he powers through final tracks Must I Paint You A Picture, There Is Power In A Union and A New England, he certainly had help. And, come Tuesday morning, he won’t be alone.
Billy Bragg performed at the Governor Hindmarsh on Monday, April 24
Photos: Andreas Heuer – AKPhotography