LIVE REVIEW: Billy Bragg, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 26/10/2021.

Billy Bragg with Tom Collison. Photo – @KingOggee

A few weeks ago I went to Live at Leeds. I met some of my old university mates from back in the day. When we first met up, after the briefest of moments, it was like we had never been away. I had a similar experience this week with Billy Bragg at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall.

On to the stage walked a man who I thought I recognised. The hair was a shade whiter than I remember, and to paraphrase The Who, the parting on the left, is now a parting on the right, but once I heard the opening strains of A Lover Sings coming from a Gibson 125 I knew all was well. Here was Billy Bragg. It was time for a session of solidarity, an evening of empathy.

This tour is ostensibly to promote Bragg’s tenth studio album – The Million Things That Never Happened. In this endeavour he was ably assisted by Tom Collison, whose role was to provide accompanying keyboards, vocals, and to remind Billy where to place his capo. The album was due for it’s vinyl release this week, but has now been put back to December because, as Bragg points out, ‘all the vinyl on the planet has currently been sucked into the black hole that is Adele’s latest album’.

The first half of the set included three songs from the new LP, the title track The Million Things That Never Happened, I Should Have Seen It Coming, and Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained. Bragg is a folk-singer, a troubadour, a teller-of-tales. Each song comes with a story about it’s genesis, inspiration, exposition or history. Take that last song, Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained as an example. Before we hear it, we learn that: it came about because during lockdown Billy found himself wasting too much time watching videos on YouTube; it was written in collaboration with his son, Jack Valero; and he took the rest day off after coining the phrase ‘cyberchondriac’.

I think there may have been one or two cyberchondriacs in attendance. Once or twice during the evening, audience members who either didn’t possess an attention span extending beyond the length of a Ramones single, or who disagreed with sentiments being espoused, called out for Mr. Bragg to ‘just sing us a song’ or to ‘get on with it Billy’. I have to fully endorse Billy’s retort to these misguided individuals, ‘This is a Billy Bragg gig. What were you expecting?’. The first half of a set that included The Price I Pay, and Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, and ended with a personal favourite of mine, and surely one the most moving songs ever written about the consequences of domestic violence, the poignant Levi Stubbs’ Tears.

First song after the interval was Bragg’s most successful single offering to date, 1991’s – Sexuality. When it was written the song examined the stigmatisation of gay men following the AIDS epidemic, and the consequences of the introduction of Clause 28. Always one to adapt his lyrics to reflect the issues of the day, Bragg subtly changes the line about finding some ‘some common ground’ to ‘finding pronouns’ to highlight Transgender issues today. There are more new songs – Freedom Doesn’t Come Free, about a US town’s spectacularly failed experiment with libertarianism, and the touching I Will Be Your Shield, a song Bragg wrote about his, and his partners lockdown experience together. Intertwined with these new songs were Bragg classics like The Milkman of Human Kindness from 1983’s Life’s A Riot with Spy Vs Spy, and There is Power in a Union from the Talking With The Taxman About Poetry album. The most touching moment of the evening comes following Tank Park Salute, when a member of the a crowd, who had recently lost their father, stands up and thanks Billy for playing the song, a eulogy Bragg wrote about the passing of his own father.

The encore started with a song that was never in danger of being left off the Liverpool set list, Scousers Never Buy The Sun, a tune which received the approving recognition you would have expected. This was followed with a snapshot of Walk Away Renee before the evening culminated, as it should have done, with the rumbling, rollicking Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards. You can never confidently sing along to this song as Bragg changes the lyrics to suit the topics of the day. One of the many obstacles for Billy Bragg to overcome during this tour will be the lack of the customary post-gig ‘meet and greet’ at the merch stand. He and Collison have to stay in their bubble to ensure the integrity of the tour, but as he reminds us at the end of Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards – ‘The revolution is just a vaccination away’.

Following Billy’s example of ‘cyberchondriac’, I thought I’d have a go at coining my own word to encapsulate the evening. It’s a bit clunky, and won’t catch on, but I had a top night full of ‘solidempathy’.

Ian Dunphy.

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