I had never been to a Billy Bragg gig before, and to date (this will change) I do not own any Billy Bragg albums.
Despite this, Billy Bragg has always been in the periphery of my musical and political upbringing long before I became an adult. And not just on the political side of things either, I found myself singing along with the chorus to New England (and felt a genuine lump in my throat and tear in my eye at the verse dedicated to Kirsty MacColl) as if I was a teenager again.
And from the perspective of someone who has been almost exclusively to Mark Lanegan and Lanegan-related shows over the past 5 years or so, it was really bloody weird to have a bit of talking from onstage between songs.
Bragg is a brilliant entertainer. He is funny, passionate and really takes the time to engage his audience. He of course was preaching to the converted at this show, but this didn’t dampen his spirit one iota as he switched effortlessly between tales of recording his part for Cage Against the Machine (an alternative celeb-studded reworking of John Cage’s 4’33” as opposition for whatever X Factor dross gets released for the Xmas No.1 spot) on a cellphone whilst stuck on a snowbound Scottish motorway, and his passionate support for those trying to make a better world for themselves and others against the odds. And this latter bit only really made Billy make sense to me after seeing him live onstage – everything he says and does is so positive, at odds with a decades-old perception of him as an lefty agitator against this or that or whatever, not that there’s much wrong with that either. He has an incredibly disarming Englishness about him (certainly in the way that he saluted the crowd at the end, first with his guitar and then with a cup of tea, flinging the used teabag into the audience), and it is a much more friendly, positive and palatable view of being English than the image sold to us by the Far Right of this country of late, so more power to Billy for exuding that, and letting the rest of us recognise that positivity in ourselves also.
All well and lovely, but he wasn’t the reason I’d driven down to the South Coast. The reason I’m here tapping away at this while the English Channel makes a rather soothing racket about 50 feet away is because of the support act.
This all came about a bit strangely. Two years ago (practically, to this day) me and two friends came down to Bexhill-On-Sea to see Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan perform at the beautiful De La Warr Pavillion – a great gig at a great venue in the company of great friends. A few months ago, I was watching top political argument show Question Time, and it just happened to be hosted at the same venue (and how many other theatres can boast the hosting of both Lanegan and Dimbleby, albeit non-simultaneously?), which set off the old thought processes going, namely “right, we need an excuse to go back there”. And the next day, I get a message from a friend in Canada telling me that Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore were supporting Billy Bragg in December, and a quick check of wherever it was on the internet that has this such info later, the De La Warr Pavillion was right there. So the date was there, the venue was there, and an act I’d wanted desperately to see was there. If only my lottery numbers were so willing to conspire with the fates in such a manner.
Ben and Daniel were on stage almost as soon as the auditorium doors were open, launching into recent album-opener Something, Somewhere, Sometime, and it was heartening to see those who had chosen to arive early get so into them straight away. Other favourites from Dear Companion swiftly followed such as Needn’t Say a Thing, Only a Song and Flyrock Blues, interjected with explanations about why their collaboration came together through their displeasure at Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining methods. This may sound strange to a country that has few mountains and no coal mining industry left to speak of, but as they explained, this was them bringing their problems from their backyards into the public domain, and how if we all cared about each other’s plights then we could all come together to find a solution. It wasn’t all seriousness however, as merchandise was funnily and hamfistedly plugged by way of one of Billy Bragg’s tea mugs, and Ben made a light remark or two about the very tall Daniel Martin Moore’s somewhat small-looking guitar.
Ben and Daniel’s solo outings also got an airing tonight – Daniel performed That’ll Be The Plan from Stray Age, and Ben ran through an enthusiastic version of Bury Me With My Car, explaining that he had recently undertaken a US tour (with cello) on his bicycle. Wrapping-up came in the form of an outstanding rendition of Try, featuring some incredible musicianship from Sollee as he played his cello like I’ve never seen anyone play one, and a rousing Dear Companion with Daniel in great vocal form. Ben also joined Billy Bragg onstage at the end of the evening for Following the Wrong Star, a song that I hope gets recorded and released exactly as it was performed here.
This was a strange gig for me to be at – I had been to shows before where I’d wanted to see the support more than the main attraction before, and I’ve travelled this distance with the sole purpose of being at a gig before, athough never both at the same time. What I got from tonight is a pair of incredible performances, one from a new act who I hope to hear more of over the years, and one from someone who had established himself in my upbringing with a far greater prominence than I had originally realised. result all round, then.