At sixteen you were top of your class
All they taught you at school
Was how to be a good worker
The system has failed you, don't fail yourself
Just because you're better than me
Doesn't mean I'm lazy
Just because you're going forwards
Doesn't mean I'm going backwards
- Billy Bragg "To Have and Have Not"
I have a pretty storied history when it comes to Billy Bragg shows - even though this was only my 3rd time seeing one of my top-ten-or-so favorite artists. The first time I saw Billy was back in 2006, also at the Aladdin. Touring a slate of recent reissues the solo set had a lean focus on Billy's back material. I had arrived an hour before doors opened and selected a seat front row center. After the show, during Billy's typical appearance at the merch table I brought a mug (very cleverly printed with "BREWING UP WITH BILLY BRAGG" the title of one of his albums - this mug is sitting in front of me right now, a permanent fixture on the desk that I do all of my writing at) and my copy of Talking with the Taxman About Poetry to be signed. To my great surprise, Billy recognized me. He even mentioned that seeing my enthusiastic reaction to his performance helped motivate him. I told him that he should return to Portland and he said that he would.
He did, years later. A sublime show at the Pacific Northwest College of art that you can view highlights from right here:
(music begins after an illuminating sit down interview)
I'd suggest fast forwarding to about 1:46:00 for a killer performance of "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" featuring yours truly shouting out lyrics when Billy forgot the words. A magical moment that will always be my 2nd favorite concert memory (sorry Billy, you just can't compete with the first time I saw Bruce Springsteen walk up to a microphone)
Needless to say, I was pretty excited when I saw the announcement that Billy was returning to Portland. His performance last Tuesday was in support of his new Amercana tinged album Tooth and Nail - spiritual cousin of sorts to the Mermaid Avenue sessions. I had been excited to see Billy perform with a band for the first time but found something lacking from the performances of many of the new songs. The band felt a bit plodding with the exception of stellar performances of "My Flying Saucer" (a longtime favorite) and a superlative performance of "Sexuality" - dedicated to those in Oregon fighting the battle for marriage equality.
A similar version starts here at 5:20
Even though the Tooth and Nail songs didn't resonate with me all that much (as opposed his last album, the criminally underrated Mr Love and Justice which continues to grow on me) - I was still encouraged by Billy's drive to keep creating new art.
For those wanting to step their toes into Mr. Bragg's body of work, I'd suggest the 2003 collection Must I Paint You a Picture. I'm not usually a fan of best-ofs but this one does an excellent job of highlighting Billy's best works. In particular, it deftly navigates the dichotomy of Billy's sublime and often quirky love songs and the striking political polemics that define his image in the eyes of many music fans.
My favorite Billy Bragg song will always be "The Space Race is Over". An understated ballad with a gorgeous melody with lyrics that use history as a backdrop to mediate on growing older.
I was thrilled to see it live again last Tuesday. I hope to see it in Portland again, someday.