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Otago Girls' High School
Sunday, October 14
"All you fascists are bound to lose!" On these power-words penned by Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg ended the first half of his packed concert. While not written by our working-class hero from Essex, somehow they remained in my head throughout the second half and lingered on after the show.
They're apt words to turn to when trying to encapsulate Bragg in a short review. Oft-discussed in brow-furrowing conversations - yet the man himself remains publicly wary of academics - Bragg's social-conscience-set-to-music aligns him to guitar-wielding revolutionaries such as Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Paul Weller and others. Indeed, the entire first set was a tribute to Guthrie, comprised of songs from the 1998 Mermaid Avenue collaborative album which brought to light previously undiscovered songs by the artist. Bragg pulled this set off with humour and aplomb.
Music for Bragg is a vehicle for awakening, informing, motivating and attacking. His music has never been intended as a salve.
And tonight was no exception. It was raw, not always pretty, yet somehow magnificent, especially in the second set where he performed his own material.
Bragg's late-1970s punk roots were clearly evident.
His calling card at the beginning of his career was a passionate anti-Thatcher vitriol. His specific targets may have changed as the decades have passed, but the pinpoint clarity of his lyrics, the disarming directness of the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic underpinning, and the in-your-face edge to his stage presence retain much of the UK punk aesthetic in which he was spawned.
But that is not to suggest a Billy Bragg concert today is a nostalgia trip. Rather, it tells us music might still have power.
Billy told us last night that music can't change the world; it is audiences that do that. Perhaps that's true, but how we love seeing a musician try! Witnessing the power of a belief, a voice and an electric guitar is still powerful stuff.
- Ian Chapman.