Live review: Billy Bragg, Exeter University, November 11th, 2021: our favourite troubadour of the heart and the people returns to the stage

Billy Bragg, Exeter University, November 11th, 2021. Photograph by Sarah Cammack

A PILGRIMAGE of sorts, to see the Bard of Barking, Billy Bragg (although these days it’s the Bard of Bridport, not so many miles east along the Dorset coast); who’s playing this date of a hugely virally-delayed tour in the lofty surrounds of the university’s Great Hall, pine-panelled and architecturally brutalist and blessed with good acoustics.

Exeter is then these days pretty much a home-turf gig for Billy, although he did do a low-key warm-up show in the intimate surrounds of Bridport’s arts centre, housed in an old Methodist chapel, before embarking around the UK. And: a pilgrimage of sorts, you say? Well, yes; and although of course obviously I’m seen him before, of course I have; but with the ‘rona maybe receding, finally (?) tonight offers a next phase in a periodic love affair that began way back in the Eighties, pirating that week’s Sunday night official charts onto a TDK D90 when suddenly the airbrushed production and shoulder pads on Caribbean yachts of the era was upended by the raw, unadorned soul of “Between The Wars”. Mouth: agape.

Billy came back to me in a really, really big way as well during that future (past) dystopian period, Lockdown One; I mean I’m sure you had artists that came cresting the hill and spoke to you in a way they hadn’t either before or in a while during that. Well, for me it was Jonathan Richman and Billy Bragg and on a rational level I really have no idea why; but that first trio of Billy’s records for Go! Discs, all Gill sans font and three colours and simple street-level excellence, spoke to me so deeply. Maybe it’s that solitary sound of one man and a guitar really seeing the world. That aloneness. Anyhow.

Returning to this venue, that’s a bit of a pilgrimage as well; schlepping up that hill from the valley below I remembered that the last time I was here and that, revealing how close I am to being a brain being kept artificially cogent in a jar, was 33 years ago: to see The Wedding Present, riding as high in the charts as indie bands did back then (hovering outside the 40) with “Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now?” and we had to hang around the station until dawn for the first train home and one of my friends threw up after too much Devon scrumpy and still gamely tried to chat up some German inter-railer while lying prone on the platform. Actually, if you think about it, the kind of brilliantly small vignette of life how it’s actually lived that Billy might’ve made great, ineptly lovelorn song of.

And it’s so great to see him to take to the stage, silver fox hair, as he intimates, parting to the left “like my politics” since growing overlong in lockdown; and he launches straight into a strong, captivating a cappella of “Tender Comrade” from Worker’s Playtime. The proverbial pin would be heard dropping.

At a keyboard draped in the Sussex flag which he returns to throughout the set, Thomas Collinson comes aboard for the soulful warmth of the gorgeous “A Lover Sings”, with those brilliant snapshots of fumbling love affairs such as “When I think of all the times I spent sitting on the end of your bed in anticipation”, tights around ankles, all those universal truths.

There’s new songs too, of course: tales of the weird places we all went in lockdown. The hamstrung hell of a life on pause, “A Million Things That Never Happened” – “A walk on the beach, so far out of reach / The expected delight, of a Saturday night … a million things never happened at all.” On a more wry – no scrub that – outright funny tip, there’s “Ten Mysterious Photos” – about that clickbait that offers false promises and which, once tempted, leads you into a world of pop-ups and vapidity, and during which song he pulls off rhyming ‘rabid trolls and ‘rabbit holes’. Billy wryly observes, and it’s true, that without the internet, lockdown would’ve been “like one long 1970s’ Sunday” and there really is very little disputing that.

And he’s actually hilarious too, you know; one in the eye for those who harp about his sanctimony over at the other side of the political spectrum. He has a way with timing, the universal observation (although no surprises there, given the songcraft), the callback. I guess this kinda of stagecraft is something you’d perfect if you were brave enough to be a politically engaged one man and his guitar thing; but you can’t work at a talent that isn’t there. I won’t spoil his entire repartee for you but the observation that if Rick Astley and Blossoms could tour The Smiths’ catalogue, then by a process of psychic elimination the only candidate to do the same for him might be Timmy Mallett was surreal and perfect.

There’s space for a dustily strumsome reading of “Way Over Yonder In A Minor Key”, the Woody Guthrie lyric brought to life in cahoots with Wilco, which he sings with such understanding and pride in what he stands for that you know is real. That’s the thing with William Bloke; he’s one of the artists in our firmament who actually mean it, and there aren’t so many of them, and we should treasure that. Treasure him.

“Sexuality” comes armed with a call for solidarity for the LBGTQ rights association Stonewall – and it’s refreshing to heard a word of that collective potency uttered and supported in a hall of hundreds of people – and to these ears sounds all the better for being stripped back of the chart-bound polish of the single. “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” and “Must I Paint You A Picture” don’t so much strip back the years as transport you to a timeless, maybe safer, virus and populism-free space – although there are still battles to be fought, even there.

A set split by the civility of a intermission reaches the home straight in a clutch of classics: there’s the socialist optimism of “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards”; the rallying cry of 1986’s “Power In A Union”and a delicious reading of “Walk Away Renee”, the psychedelic soul classic which backs “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” and which sees him take that classic, baroque melody and turn the lyrical content inside out, remaking it as a beautiful fragment of a fragmentarily beautiful dalliance, changing that last line about the haircut to “And then it happened: she voted Tory and I stopped loving her.”

And if you don’t know his take, then you ought to, kinda right now; and I’m here to say that actually, The Four Tops version maybe only actually occupies the bronze podium behind the unreasonably obscure original, by New York’s The Left Banke. Billy’s: pure gold.

And during that closing period of the show Billy reminds us that although music can’t change the world, inherently having no agency of its own, it can articulate the unsaid, provide a new perspective on the world and offer communal strength.

And I leave with that unmistakeable voice ringing in my ears and a warmer heart; outside life goes on, and there’s a gathering of students on the stone bleachers practising for some street dance or flash mob or somesuch, waay after dark; further on, two young couples head into town, the two lads gamely engaged in passing a plastic pint pot to each other down the path. And I’d like to thank Billy for that too – the ability to see the romance of life as it’s lived demotically, wholly – seeing Teresa and Steve learn about love in those lamplit Devon streets.

Billy Bragg’s tour continues in Bristol tonight, at the 02 Academy, and then in G Live in Guildford next Tuesday, November 16th; for a full upcoming itinerary visit his tour page.

His new album, The Million Things That Never Happened, is out now on CD and cassette, with vinyl to follow in the new year; you can buy yours direct from his website.

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