There comes a point in many a career where the artist in question begins to lose the fire in their belly. Be it the mellowing effects of age, a physical or metaphorical distancing from the issues that once drove them or even a simple loss of interest in the things which once sparked creativity, the things that drive artists early on in their careers are rarely the same things that drive them later on in life. While this doesn’t necessarily have to spell the end of an artist’s relevance, it can often see artist and audience diverge in interests. However, despite a career stretching back 35 years, such a quandary has seemingly never been an issue for Billy Bragg. The themes tackled on his succinct 1983 debut ‘Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy’ have much in common with those of his most recent compositions; his three calling cards – empathy, solidarity and a keen sense of humour – remain very much intact.
Likewise, the mode of delivery for his words is much the same now as it was all those years ago. Although Bragg is joined by a second guitarist-come-pedal-steel-player for a handful of songs tonight, by and large he takes the stage at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion alone. Whereas a less charismatic performer would struggle to fill the wide, unforgiving stage and cavernous auditorium – which tonight plays host to 400 or so people – Bragg manages to keep an engaging show going over a generous hour and three quarters, despite the barebones sound he produces. His guitar work is feisty and energetic enough to prove a compelling vehicle for his songs – his work has ultimately always placed lyricism centre stage; the messages he sends out and the stories he tells are the basis of his longevity as an artist and they remain as vital tonight as they ever have been.
With lyricism so direct, persuasive, humorous and – most importantly – human, musical over encumbrance is an ever present risk. So whilst it’s testament to Bragg’s ability as a performer that such a bare-bones musical presentation remains fascinating in a live setting, such arrangements are also a necessity to keep the clarity of his message intact. Indeed, when the meaning and message of his songs – be it a tackling of the personal or the political – is so central to the impact of his work, it should come as no surprise that the lengthy, impassioned talks he gives between many songs tonight are every bit as engaging as the music itself. Bragg has never minced his words and there’s much nodding of heads and whoops of appreciation as he contextualises the songs he’s about to sing and also eloquently elaborates on his own singular, powerful outlook on life.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of tonight’s show is simply the message of hope that Bragg brings with him; whilst his songs often set-the-world-to-rights, protesting against inequality and inhumane treatment – a less overt but no less powerful message shone through brightly tonight. When Bragg performs the recently penned ‘Full English Brexit’, he prologues it with a message of tolerance and understanding towards those who voted leave – let’s face it, Bragg undoubtedly pulls in a predominantly (if not exclusively) remain audience. Such views set Bragg apart from more easily definable political peers – his message has never been one-sided and it’s this open-mindedness that’s led, in a large way, to the keen sense of humanity found in so much of his work.
There is, of course, defiance, too – and a lot of it. There’s a strident, joyful sense of community fostered in the room throughout the show and it’s an atmosphere that comes to a head when Bragg lets rip with fan-favourite ‘There Is Power In A Union’, a song just as at home sung on a picket line as it is in a concert hall. Not for the first time, the crowd sing along to every word, Bragg frequently leaving the microphone to roam the stage and let the crowd carry the song. Throughout the room fists are raised in defiance, mimicking Braggs own actions; it’s an atmosphere of resilient resistance against the Tory-led status-quo, but also one of simple good times.
By the time Bragg leaves the stage for good – after a generous encore culminating in another hearty sing along, this time ‘A New England’ – it’s smiles all around as the crowd leaves in undeniably buoyant spirits. Bragg is a rabble-rouser like few others – he’s a rare songwriter in that he can tackle the personal and emotional with as deft a hand as he can the political and it’s this salient mixture that makes his live show such a winning, likeable one. Few artists this far into their career still possess the skills – much less desire – to articulate the sort of burning, topical concerns that Bragg does, seemingly with such ease. Fewer still can do so with the sort of heart and soul that makes Billy Bragg such an affecting performer.