Billy Bragg - Hammersmith Apollo

I have to admit that Seth Lakeman wasn't on my radar before tonight’s performance. Based on his appearance, however, it seems clear that a little kismet was in force, as this half of an ideal pairing took to stage in front of 25% of the venue.

A folk singer-songwriter at heart, Lakeman’s music is just as steeped in politics and retellings of personal stories, like Bragg possessing a fiery-ness in sticking up for the working class man. As he swaps back and forth from fiddle to guitar, while his band come and go to provide varying degrees of vocal/cello/banjo support, there’s a maintained energy in the air; the magnificently building rhythms - occasionally giving off Fleetwood Mac vibes - almost drown out Lakeman’s lyrics. It’s certainly thirty minutes of toe-tapping stuff, however you take it, working up the audience as the floor steadily fills.

Tonight’s theme resounds with the presence of Bragg’s close friend Phil Jupitus and his embellished anecdotal poetry. An amusing story which recounts his first ever gig at the feet of Debbie Harry is but of several to cause bellyfuls of laughter. It proved to be just a taster of what the rest of the evening would contain, the fellow returning later perform ‘Bestiality’ and to round off the encore ‘A13, Trunk Road to the Sea’.
After a warm hug, Billy Bragg greets his audience, launching into ‘Sexuality’. It’s one of the more obvious tracks in his repertoire, played with gusto and gotten out of the way. However, the reason as to it’s inclusion as an opening number becomes more apparent with a tale all of its own, thanks to a night spent with a naked Tasmanian. Anecdotal from start to finish, Bragg spends as much time talking as he does playing songs. It’s a good job that he’s so engaging, then. A mixture of genuine stand-up and Best Of hits, the opening leg of his UK tour is determinedly on point if a tad relaxed throughout the first few numbers.

It’s not until Bragg delivers a speech on fascism, housing benefits, Charring Cross Hospital and the Barking and Dagenham elections which saw the BNP wiped out, that the gloves really come off and the audience goes into rapture. ‘All You Fascists Bound to Lose’ and ‘I Ain’t Got no Home’ are searing, but the edges soften once Bragg settles into an entertaining musing regarding Tooth and Nail’s success in the Americana charts and the notion that he’d suddenly “Gone country”, as if nobody knew the reality of it. Describing Americana as “Country music for people who like The Smiths”, he adamantly claims that the Brits practically invented the genre, a claim which caused some fuss in the media as a result. It’s all very funny though; the use of his beard as a chin disguise, the general touchiness of Americans, the mentioning of Skiffle and the subsequently effortless transition into dropping Lonnie Donegan’s name as a safe word for rough sex, leads into the sublime ‘You Woke Up My Neighbourhood’.

Bragg and his band beautifully rattle through a few more beloved hits; ‘The Saturday Boy’ notable for the welcome return of Dave “Hot Lips” Woodhead and his little trumpet receives huge applause, with an overall mood now ecstatic. After Phil Jupitus joins on stage for ‘Bestiality’ it’s time for a more sombre tone with an attack on UKIP, interspersed with a few heckles/obnoxious shout outs, to which the road-hardened veteran is quick to fire back, whilst maintaining a somewhat jovial attitude. ‘There Will Be a Reckoning’ charges up the emotions once more, before Bragg shifts the tone to talk about “The crisis in masculinity” with ‘Handyman Blues’, followed by a lovely rendition of ‘California stars’.

Another amusing moment of the set included his talk regarding the German Influence on Mermaid Avenue, which gives rise to a Kraftwerk-inspired ‘A New England’, complete with shout-out to Kirsty MacColl. There was little doubting that Bragg and his band had really struck something as hundreds of fists punched the air during what was arguably the highlight of the evening, some yelling for him to play it again.

‘Accident Waiting to Happen’ - dedicated to Nigel Farage - closed the main setlist, with Bragg quick to return for the encore on vocal-only duties for ‘The Internationale’ and ‘I Don’t Need this Pressure Ron’ on account of a broken string during ‘Accident…’.It’s all fixed in time for ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’, followed by There is Power in a Union’, humbly dedicated to Bob Crow. ‘Tank Park Salute’, ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’ with Frank Turner and ‘A13, Trunk Road To The Sea’ with Phil and Woody round off a wonderful selection of songs with utmost poignancy - a terrific evening with one of our most fearless and passionate voices in the industry.

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