Billy Bragg review: A masterclass in secular communion

“The most insidious thing that Margaret Thatcher ever said was ‘there is no such thing as society’…if you refuse to wear a mask to get into a gig, you’re siding with Thatcher.”

Billy Bragg live at Liverpool Philharmonic on October 26, 2021

Never one to mince his words, Billy Bragg was quick to summarise the zeitgeist: “there are so many things that have happened in the past few years that have been portents of the end times.” COVID-19, discrimination, yellow journalism, and raw sewage in waterways would all be discussed over the course of the night, but for the moment he meant something *really* ominous: Bill Bailey winning Strictly Come Dancing! This set the tone for a show that mixed music, politics, current affairs, and humour expertly.

Billy Bragg holding a finger up while playing guitar

With the release of Bragg’s tenth studio album on the horizon, it’s no surprise that the set was replete with brand-new songs. Nevertheless, he was conscious of the loyalty of his longstanding fans and rewarded them by opening the concert with A Lover Sings, a deep cut from 1984. It still sounded vital 37 years later.

“Fundamentally, the internet is nothing more than a reflection of who we are,” Bragg mused. The part of our psychology that is collectively transfixed by the smoke and mirrors of online clickbait inspired him to write Ten Mysterious Photos that Can’t Be Explained. It turned out that the new track can be explained just as easily as the eponymous faked photos. Bragg’s son, singer-songwriter Jack Valero, heard an early version and realised that he could improve the song’s structure. So he did, in just ten minutes. Bragg joked about consternation at the edit – “I’ve just coined a new phrase, cyberchondriac, I’m not throwing that out!!” – but, really, he was brimming with pride, then and now.

The same sentiment shone through when reminiscing about Valero playing guitar loudly as a form of therapy when he was a teenager. As a ‘singer-songwriter dad,’ Bragg realised that the noise was necessary: “that’s it, boy, deal with the day.” Still, one night, it was too much and he was dispatched to tell him to ‘turn that shit down.’ Bragg’s resolve failed when he reached the top of the stairs and realised that his son was playing A New England by Billy Bragg!

The punter who saw this as the perfect time to request A New England ended up disappointed, but Levi Stubbs’ Tears was a welcome substitute. Next, Bragg played “my bloody hit,” Sexuality. A quick tweak gave us the standout lyric of the night: “don’t threaten me with Morrissey.”

Thomas Collison laughing

He’d updated the song for the present-day elsewhere too, changing a key line to “if you stick around/I’m sure that we can find the right pronoun.” When the applause died out, Bragg explained why expressing allyship with the trans community is key: “this is an issue of fundamental human rights.” Wondering about his thoughts on those who fought for gay rights but now oppose the same for others, destabilising Stonewall along the way? Well, he played Moving The Goalposts next, adding an expletive to the title for good measure.

With proof of vaccination and a mask required for entry, there was never likely to be a sense of complete escapism at the concert. But that wasn’t necessary. There was plenty of space for humour, despite the sombre topic: “I never thought I would say this – I wake up in the morning and stick some stuff up my nose. I am really not that kind of popstar!”

Billy Bragg singing

Of course, it got more serious. Bragg saw it as no real attack on “individual liberty to wear a face mask to go and buy a bloody cup of coffee.” He knew this stance wasn’t universally accepted by his fanbase. When he posted about having had the vaccine to protect his family and give this tour the best chance of going ahead, he received 5,000 replies. Commenters called him “a government stooge and a scab” and declared it an unbelievable action from Billy Bragg of Red Wedge. Yet, he was resolute: “the most insidious thing that Margaret Thatcher ever said was ‘there is no such thing as society’…if you refuse to wear a mask to get into a gig, you’re siding with Thatcher.”

Billy Bragg holding his fist in the air

Fitting for the Scouse audience, he acknowledged that he had “a cob on” about the topic, but remained adamant that accountability and the common good were paramount. He referred to the New Hampshire town chronicled in the fantastically titled book A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear. Bragg explained how it inspired him to write Freedom Doesn’t Come For Free, with the delightfully impish lyric “live free or die trying/you might get eaten by a mountain lion.”

Billy Bragg staring at Thomas Collison on stage

Bragg explained that he also feels personal responsibility when it comes to heritage. He’s touched by seeing Victorian photos in charity shops because there’s no one left to remember the people and their stories: “they’re lost, they’re gone forever.” This made him realise that being the only keeper of his own family’s history was a heavy burden, so he made annotated photo books for relatives. Now if his house burns down, he can “stand there and have a cup of tea with a neighbour” instead of running back for the photographs!

Bragg captured the impulse to memorialise in the new song Pass It On: “Voices fall silent but memories live on/and those we remember are never gone.” It has a larger purpose, as far as he’s concerned: “if everybody understood why they were born where they were and why [then they’d see] family constantly on the move…belonging is more important than nationality, perhaps even than patriotism.”

Billy Bragg gesturing on stage

This was too much for one punter who yelled ‘play more songs.’ The riposte was instant: “this must be your first ever Billy Bragg gig, mate!” The roar of laughter proved that the hapless heckler was in the minority. They relished the complete experience – lengthy lectures and all.

Bragg levelled with them that he no longer believes music can change the world – “I’ve tried!” – but it instead feels that it fosters community, like in church or at the football. Simply put, “the power of music is empathy…[and a] focus on empathy is taking a political stance” at a time when having compassion for someone in the ‘other’ group is derided as ‘woke.’

Billy Bragg and Thomas Collison on stage

When he did ‘play more songs,’ the Liverpool audience was treated to the most powerful selection yet. The ever-emotive song Tank Park Salute was simply stunning. You could have heard a pin drop as the crowd savoured the sadness. It moved a ‘comrade’ to stand up and eulogise his father who he had buried the day before. Bragg expressed commiserations and solidarity, before sharing his own pure emotion while singing I Will Be Your Shield which was inspired by protecting his partner during the pandemic.

After such an emotional rollercoaster, Bragg barrelled through the barnstormer The Milkman of Human Kindness. The jaunty opening track from his debut album was an apposite palate cleanser. With the fans all fired up, an encore was assured. Given the setting, there was no other choice. The roar of approval after the first full-throated refrain of “Scousers never buy The Sun” was stupendous. Bragg ended the deft putdown of tabloid journalism with “justice for the 97” to mark Andrew Devine’s recent passing 32 years after the Hillsborough disaster.

The penultimate track was the spoken word piece Walk Away Renee, ably accompanied by Americana Association UK award-winner Thomas Collison on keys. He had already proved his instrumental prowess during exposed songs like Tank Park Salute, and his vocal ability during the pivotal ‘Sweden’ earworm of Sexuality. After Must I Paint You A Picture, with its prominent backing vocals and instrumentation, Bragg declared “I don’t know what he does to you, but he makes me go all wobbly.”

Billy Bragg pointing at Thomas Collison on keyboards

The end was near: “I think we’ve covered all the subjects and matey boy who wanted me to play all the songs has gone home.” There was just time for one last hurrah: Waiting For the Great Leap Forwards. It made for a spirited end to a memorable night that deftly combined raconteurship, political anthems, and heartrending ballads. A masterclass in secular communion.

Billy Bragg raising his fist in the eye, photographed from the back of the venue

The Million Things That Never Happened by Billy Bragg is out on Cooking Vinyl on October 29, 2021.

Billy Bragg’s UK and Ireland tour continues throughout November 2021.

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The interior of Liverpool Philharmonic Hall lit up with the crowd in darkness