Any longtime fan of Billy Bragg knows that his concerts tend to be equal parts storytelling and singing. His Wednesday night show at the Neptune was no exception, with Bragg taking on socialism (“it just means organized compassion”), Johnny Marr (“the nicest bloke in music”), and Throat Coat tea (recommended by Morrissey). But few expected Bragg’s tales to include the Queen.
When an invitation to meet Her Majesty came to him a while back, Bragg, who is something just short of royalty himself among British music fans, took his “mum” along. He told the Queen a joke, and, later, when her office asked for autographed sheet music, Bragg joked he turned her down: “Who does she think she is, the Queen of England?”
It was one of many humorous and warm moments during a night that also featured gorgeous singing. Bragg may have been performing for almost four decades (he joked that his current beard is a “middle-aged face-lift”), but his voice, and his energy are in perfect shape.
His set was peppered with both new and old numbers, and many songs from his latest release, “Tooth & Nail.” Before “No One Knows Nothing Anymore,” Bragg joked about how the goatee and whiskers (“they look like a ginger cat’s arse”) are finally dead, and real beards are in.
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Bragg’s humor is also rooted in the reality of being a middle-age singer-songwriter in a YouTube-dominated world. He’d just been at South by Southwest, he said, where there were signs his style is coming back.
“I seen a lot of guys wishing they were 55 years old and knew Woody Guthrie,” he said, a line that got some of the biggest applause of the night.
Bragg sang several songs from his “Mermaid Avenue” sessions, where he covered Guthrie songs. His rendition of “I Ain’t Got No Home” was particularly powerful. He talked about Woody as if he were still alive. For Bragg, Guthrie’s songs are living creatures he feels a responsibility to nurture.
That he did, but his own poignant love songs, including “New England,” were the most magical moments during a night of many highlights. Bragg knows his audience well enough to be assured they would be able to sing along to all his ’80s material, so he left the mike for those, and the concert felt like a homecoming as a result.
Bragg ended his encores with “Waiting For the Great Leap Forward,” as everyone in the crowd sang along. He spoke about how personal cynicism is the greatest threat to mankind, and how “the antidote to cynicism is activism.”
Like all of Bragg’s performance at the Neptune, it was an inspiring call to action, but also one filled with beauty.
Charles R. Cross: firstname.lastname@example.org.