By Katharine Swindells
BU News Service
I don’t usually spend my nights with crowds of middle-aged men, except last Thursday. People flocked to The Sinclair in Cambridge to see a man – also middle-aged, but English – alone on stage save for two guitars, power through trade union ballads and folk anthems.
The last time I saw Billy Bragg performing in the U.S., Barack Obama was still president. Britain hadn’t even started to Brexit and liberal think pieces were saying asinine things like “is there any point in protest music anymore?”
It feels like a lot longer than six years since I stood in a small venue in St. Louis with a similar crowd to my fellow Cambridge showgoers, but this time something in the mood was very different. His shows have taken on a distinctly darker and less hopeful tone.
Bragg performed the first of his three-night stint at The Sinclair in Cambridge Thursday night, with a set spanning his entire career from the 80s to the present.
This is the last stop of his U.S. tour before he heads back to do the U.K. leg through November. The three nights in each city are, he explains, in part for his own well-being.
“I’m looking for a way across your vast country that is both considerate to the environment and considerate towards the performer,” he told the crowd.
He also said his flights are both ways across the Atlantic and he’s not brought any team members from the U.K., just a tour manager from New York.
In typical Bragg style, his set is 30% actual songs and 70% anecdotes-slash-rants. The veteran Bragg fans in the audience know this, but there were definitely a few confused faces in the crowd.
Bragg’s performances are, in his own words, “a narrative arc,” using his songs and covers to posit the way he sees the world, expounding on free speech, healthcare and corporate accountability. He sees his role as twofold: education and empowerment.
“You draw your strength from the solidarity of other people in the audience in the same way that I do,” he told the crowd. “You might be at your job or your college where you feel you’re on your own, but you know that there’s some solidarity in this room.”
For such an English artist, his American roots are undeniable, and it’s clear why he has amassed such a following this side of the Atlantic. It was the 52nd anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s death, he told the audience Thursday night. He recounted stories of his time working on “Mermaid Avenue,” a collection of Guthrie’s unheard work that he worked on with Guthrie’s daughter and the American band Wilco.
He told the story of Stetson Kennedy, a Southern activist who infiltrated the KKK in the 40s, before singing the campaign song Guthrie wrote for him. A representative from the Stetson Kennedy foundation took to the stage to present Bragg with an award for his work in political art.
But there are times when Bragg loses his balance between his two missions. Old numbers like “Sexuality,” which argues the fluidity of attraction, were revolutionary with Bragg’s working-class male audiences in the 80s, but feel unnecessary in the bougie, liberal crowds of Cambridge on a Thursday night. When there are so many young great queer artists today, perhaps that’s one Bragg could retire to the back catalogs. And when he encores with a modernized cover of Bob Dylan’s “Times They Are a Changin,” you could tell the crowd was not feeling it.
But when we’re on Bragg’s home turf, talking solidarity, accountability and socialism, the audience is with him all the way. And ultimately, it’s an incredible feat that he can take songs, some almost four decades old, and have them still ring as true as they ever did.
“Greetings to the New Brunette,” sung exactly as it was in ‘86, takes on new meaning when paired with Bragg’s explanation on his youthful feminist education. He takes a song written about the Cold War and turns it into a mantra on Brexit and free healthcare. And his cover of Anaïs Mitchell’s ‘Why We Build the Wall,’ written a decade ago, well, the relevancy there needs no explanation.
But better than on the stage, you see it on the picket line. The next afternoon Bragg performed at a rally for the striking hotel workers of the Battery Wharf Hotel on the Harborside. These crowds didn’t all know every word to Bragg’s b-side, or smile knowingly at his Guthrie references. But as he led them through “power in a union” and “solidarity forever,” they could see exactly what Bragg does.
“That’s the real power of music, it has the power to bring people together,” he told The Sinclair. “To charge them up and send them away, to do their bit in changing the world.”