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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
St George

 

 

 

 

BILLY BRAGG
The Barbican
London
April 23rd 2008

It’s St George’s Day. You know, England’s own Patron Saint (well, not really our own, as he’s also Patron Saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Portugal and Russia, and, amongst others, the city of Moscow). As far as anyone can tell he was Turkish, a warrior who converted to Christianity and was martyred for refusing to persecute his co-religionists. He had a tough time: “stretched out on the rack and ripped to shreds with flesh hooks, harnessed to machines that drew him apart, and then beaten, after which salt was poured into his wounds, which were rubbed with a haircloth … then pressed into a box pierced with nails, impaled on sharp stakes, plunged into boiling water … his head crushed by a hammer …”, and that was just the start. He died, legend has it, on 23rd April. He also of course, killed the dragon, and thus gained the reputation of a protector which lives on to this day. And at Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s request, England is bedecked in red and white flags, spontaneous street parties abound, Morris Dancers, Costermongers and Pearly Kings and Queens dance through the streets arm-in-arm like a nightmare scene from a Lionel Bart musical, and it’s Roast Beef and Cornish Pasties for lunch.

They’ve even joined in at Don Corleone’s, the little Mom and Pop pizza place which we patronise prior to our visits to the Barbican. The extra piquant Dragon’s Breath pizza is a revelation. It’s Shakespeare’s birthday too, the famous Baird of Stratford upon Avon, but I notice their special Big Willy Gugliagones aren’t moving too fast.

Pizza
We’re out on the town in our red and white plastic bowler hats to celebrate St George with England’s own rocking patriot, the Baird of Barking, Billy Bragg, who’s been much concerned with Englishness over the past few years, having read a couple of books about it, and written one - The Progressive Patriot - of his own. You may recall that a lot of this is connected with Bill’s total misunderstanding of the causes, events and historiography of the English Revolution, and his willingness to ‘tokenise’ groups such as the Diggers and Levellers as icons for his particular brand of soft and sentimental socialism. But he’s not too concerned with that seventeenth century shtick tonight – his mission, he tells us, is to reclaim St George and the idea of Englishness from the clutches of right-wing extremists such as the British National Party, and to get the English to reassess nationalist politics in the light of the success of our neighbours in Scotland. “It’s all about having a sense of place” says Billy.
Billy Bragg   He begins the evening with Leon Rosselson’s ‘World turned upside down’, and then leads the audience in ‘Jerusalem’ (“You are so powerful” Bragg tells us) before being joined by the first of his guests. It’s the very talented, ‘though sadly giggly and gauche Rachel Unthank and the Winterset from Northumbria, who delight the audience with their singing and electric clog-dancing, and perform a charming and quite excellent cover of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Sea song’.“That’s really powerful” says Billy, as he joins them as special guest.
Tom Clarke follows, a Coventry patriot from The Enemy who appears to have watched too many Paul Weller videos, and sings a pretty ill-judged song (“I only wrote this yesterday”) about the distressing murder of Sophie Lancaster. “How powerful is that?” asks Billy, who joins him as special guest. And finally from the left of the field Kitty, Daisy and Lewis, a brother and sisters (with Mom on double bass and Dad playing acoustic guitar and having the time of his life) rockabilly, skiffle, rhythm and blues and swing combo from London’s Camden Town. They rush though about ten songs, changing instruments at bewildering speed (and not always playing them too well) and totally befuddle the audience when they play a Hawaiian tune. “What’s Honolulu got to do with England?” shouts a besandled and bearded Guardian-hugging folk traditionalist, giving Bragg a platform for what becomes an evening long diatribe on inclusiveness. We also get a useful lesson on the Hawaiian flag. “That’s just so powerful” says special-guest Bragg.
Billy Bragg
Bragg’s set is a mixture of some nicely played and sung tunes, some patronising tub-thumping (“Why does he always fucking preach to the converted?” asks a frustrated fan at the end, hands still clamped to his ears), and a long rant about the need for a British Bill of Rights. There’s a nice Dick Gaughan song, ‘ ‘Both sides between’, and some old favourites like ‘Sexuality’, and inevitably stuff from his 2002, England Half English album, including the title track, a reworking of ‘John Barleycorn’, and ‘Take down the Union Jack’, which borrows heavily from Rudyard Kipling. He also plays songs like ‘Keep the faith’ from his well received new album Mr Love and Justice. There’s the anti-war ‘Farm boy’ and Bragg’s reworking of ‘The hard times of old England’, and ‘Oh Freedom’. This is followed by ‘Old Clash fan fight song’ which leads Billy into a long reminiscence about the start of the Rock Against Racism movement thirty years ago, and its influence on his then formulating politics. It’s another unnecessary and self-focussed stream of consciousness; it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Bragg, for example, that anyone else might have attended that famous march through London on 30th April 1978 or seen the famous Clash gig that followed in Hackney’s Victoria Park. In this, as in many things, Billy is a tad myopic. He ends the set with ‘There is power in a union’. “Are there any teachers in tonight?” he asks. They’re striking the following day, putting over a million children out on the streets. That, as Billy might have said, is really powerful.
England
Finally he lets the audience sing ‘New England’, which they do, badly. We’re then asked to hold up our programmes to make a cross of St George for a photograph, and finally, and most bizarrely, encouraged to join all the artists in singing the American spiritual, ‘Swing low sweet chariot’, much brutalised of late by braying English rugby supporters. Confused? Well I was. And I’m not sure that Billy wasn’t too, as I was no clearer on what this thing called Englishness was or is, and I don’t think he was either. So we left it at that, and after a couple of pints of Fosters and Kronenbourg down the George and Dragon, headed for the St George Kebab and Sushi House for a carry-out chicken tikka with chop suey, which we washed down with some of Scotland’s famous midnight wine. Very patriotic, very powerful. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

Kate's gig photo album Kate's photographs
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