On Black Friday, Red Wedge founder Billy Bragg played highlights from the "first pandemic Blues album of our times" and much, much more as he delighted the audience at The Leas Cliff Hall in Folkestone. On the penultimate date of his UK tour, Bragg returned to the Kent coast, where years earlier he recalled performing "in a basement or a cellar", to play to a capacity crowd, all of whom were seated. Billy quipped that back in the day he'd played on a stage no bigger than two feet tall to a crowd that he "lost control over" where as nowadays the crowd "can't control themselves...that's why there's an interval".
Bragg's first visit to Folkestone was with Andy Kershaw in the days of "Bragg mania" when he described his technique as "bash 'em out Bragg". Nearly four decades later and Billy Bragg has mellowed out a little, grown older and wiser and learnt how to sing. He did at one point apologise for his "slightly gruff voice" but went on to say, "anyone who heard me back in the day, it's not that different", going on to say that, "I did Life's A Riot as an encore once, nearly killed me." Someone once said to his manager, "Oh man, I feel as I've seen Bill back in the day, as he really was" and his manager replied, "Oh, no, no, no, he couldn't play those songs for s**t back in those days, he's so much better now". Billy Bragg has certainly lost none of his charisma, his ability to captivate a crowd or his passion for the opinions that he holds dear.
Billy began the evening with an old fan favourite from 1984 - A Lover Sings, a song from his second album - Brewing Up With. He then followed that up with a new track - Should Have Seen It Coming from his latest album - The Million Things That Never Happened. Bragg said that the title track of his latest record was written specifically about the pandemic but that the rest of the album used it as a "back drop". In all Billy featured five songs from the 12 track album that he released via Cooking Vinyl on October 29th.
The final song on Billy's new album was one that was co-written with his son, Jack Valero. Ten Mysterious Photos That Can't Be Explained, a song inspired by an ever present pop-up at the bottom of Billy's YouTube page, was altered at the request of Jack's mum after Valero had said that his dad was reluctant to make the changes that he thought would make the song better; including having the song's title as it's chorus. Both this, and the self reflective Mid-Century Modern from earlier in the set, went down very well with the partisan crowd but it was probably the last of his new songs that seemed to have the most resonance. Billy's ballad, I Will Be Your Shield, held the audience transfixed as he sang, "In the battle against your demons. I, I will be your shield. When the world has lost all meaning. Together, we'll stand for our love. Is the one thing that's real".
Bragg's ability to write songs that have an immediate and enduring connection to his audience is clearly undiminished as he seamlessly blended his new material in with the old. He was keen not to wallow in the '80's though and deliberately didn't play New England, or, because he "couldn't remember the rap in the middle", The Saturday Boy. He did however treat the Folkestone crowd to a fabulous version of both Levi Stubbs' Tears and Sexuality from his "Pop-star Bragg" era and later on performed a quite brilliant version of The Milkman Of Human Kindness from his debut EP, Life's A Riot with Spy vs. Spy.
In between nearly every song Bragg engaged with his audience to talk about all manor of things, including Rick Astley and Blossoms (his Cardiff "competition"), Adele, Morrissey, The Sage in Gateshead - "where the Government get their advice from...don't wear a coat in winter...no need to wear tights on a hen night", 80's discos, Johnny Cash, The Ramones, and, just once or twice - Margaret Thatcher.
The most poignant moment in the evening came towards the very end of the night. Having divided his performance in two with an interval, and having played out a rousing take of There Is A Power In A Union, Bragg returned, due to the enthusiasm of the Kent crowd, to the stage of The Leas Cliff Hall for a three track encore that included his signature close out track Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards, Walk Away Renée and Distant Shore.
Billy's gig the previous night had been in Southend, at The Cliffs Pavilion, and Bragg said that whilst there he said something to his tour manager "that his Dad used to say to him, looking across the Thames - 'That's France over there'. And then we turned up here tonight just as the sun was going down across the channel there, and I couldn't help but think about what's been happening this week...Something my Mum once said to me, came to me. She once said, we were talking about people desperately trying to get into the country, and the lengths that they go to, and she said, well you know, if there was somewhere in the world where I knew that you and your brother would have a decent chance of a life I would do anything in my power to get you there. I thought of that yesterday when I was reading that news." You could have heard a pin drop as the audiance listened to every note, and every word of Distant Shore.
Billy Bragg's return to Folkestone, on the penultimate night of his UK tour, showcased the extraordinary singer-songwriter's talent on an evening where he was wholly engaging, articulate, and, as ever - open, honest and passionate. Still a national tresaure, still not to be missed.