I first saw him at the Royal Court in Liverpool back in November 1988, when I came up to the city for my third ever visit, this time coming across from Sheffield to visit my sister who was at university here. That gig (ticket only £6!) followed my second trip to Anfield earlier that day, for a 1-1 draw with Millwall.
To continue this side-track, that first gig was made even more special by having The Beatnigs and Michelle Shocked as supports, the former I didn’t know before, but I was already a fan of the latter.
I’d been a fan of Sir William of Bragg (as Smash Hits used to refer to him at the time), since being introduced to him by my sister in the mid-1980’s. The first record of his I bought was Workers Playtime in February 1989 for a bargain £5.99 from Our Price in Sheffield.
I added the Back To Basics compilation of his first two albums and an ep, next long player Talking With The Taxman About Poetry and The Peel Sessions and Help Save The Youth Of America ep’s by the end of that year. I’ve kept up with his work ever since, now owning 29 CD’s worth of his output in total.
I waited until March 2004 to see the Braggmeister again, this time going to the Barbican with occasional gig companion Sen (hi, Matt!) for a show that was presumably promoting his Must I Paint You A Picture?: The Essential compilation. This gig was later released on CD, which of course I purchased.
This latest one was another solo gig, but during the day I discovered that Sen was going to be at the show as well. The day had brought an unexpected trip to London with work, but I was able to ensure that I was back in Liverpool in time for the show.
As there wasn’t enough time to head home before the show, I was able to pop into the Roscoe Head for a couple of pints, but not before actually bumping into Sen at the cashpoint on my way! As ever, the beer in there was excellent- I followed a pint of Peerless Pale with a classic Timothy Taylor Landlord.
We got to the venue with just enough time so that I could pick up a copy of Billy’s new Bridges Not Walls ep from the merch stall (a snip at a fiver), five sixths of which he played on the night.
Support came from Southampton lad Seán McGowan, who it is impossible to describe without comparing him to the headline act. To be fair, he told a story about the importance of Billy’s Tank Park Salute in inspiring him to take up music.
It was just him and a guitar, with the Bragg-esque mix of politics and love in the lyrics, with his passion and commitment shining through. He clearly really meant the song Milbrook Road, for example.
He was delighted to say that he’d signed a record deal earlier this year, and I headed straight back to the merch stand after his set to pick up a copy of his latest Graft & Grief ep from the man himself.
Bragg came onto the stage, backed just by C.J. Hillman on either standard or lap steel guitar, although only for a small part of the set, with the majority being just Bragg’s voice and guitar. Not many people can captivate such as large crowd on their own as effectively as the Bard of Barking.
He kicked off with 1991’s Sexuality, whose lyrics he adapted slightly to bring them more up-to-date, as he often does with his more topical songs – this time changing the reference to “misery” in the line to “don’t threaten me with Morrissey”.
The absolute highlight for me was (surprisingly) only the second number – The Warmest Room off Taxman, which was just utterly beautiful.
Billy was left alone on stage after a version of feminist love song She Came Along To Me, one of many unrecorded lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s that were set to music by Billy with Jeff Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett of Wilco for the Mermaid Avenue album in 1998.
The set mixed up tracks from Bridges Not Walls alongside classics from his career, although he played nothing off William Bloke, England, Half-English or Tooth & Nail.
New songs fitted in nicely alongside the more well-known ones, though I did actually know all of the new ones, having heard them in places such as Jack Rabid’s excellent The Big Takeover podcast.
He referenced Trump, May and Moyes (as a lifelong Hammer) when playing Accident Waiting To Happen, with its classic line “you’re a dedicated swallower of fascism”. Bragg is a master lyricist, with new song Saffiyah Smiles yet another example: “Cosplay Nazis marching in file, Hitler’s haircut is back in style”.
More utterly fabulous Bragg songs followed in Must I Paint You A Picture (more words of wisdom in “most important decisions in life are made between two people in bed”), The Saturday Boy (summing up unrequited love with “we dreamed of her and compared our dreams”) and Levi Stubbs’ Tears, for which C.J. returned on lap steel.
C.J. went off again before another track off the new ep, Anaïs Mitchell’s Why We Build The Wall. Then came yet another glorious oldie in The Milkman Of Human Kindness (“I will leave an extra pint”).
The biggest success of the night was his Never Buy The Sun with the regular line “scousers never buy The Sun”, which was greeted with a cheer every time it came around. I was welling up at the end. Uninspiringly, I got told off by one of the ushers for recording this:
Opening track Keep The Faith off Mr Love & Justice was followed by the rabble-rousing closer in There Is Power In A Union.
After a brief respite, Bragg returned for another new song, his bid for understanding of those with different political views in Full English Brexit. A reworking of a Bob Dylan classic (though he credited Lonnie Donegan, the scamp) as The Times They Are A-Changin’ Back came before the final double whammy.
Waiting For The Great Leap Forward off Workers Playtime has long had adapted lyrics, with fanzines now changed to podcasts – apparently now the bane of his life! The very last song brought a mass singalong, with A New England featuring a special shout-out to Kirsty MacColl, whose biggest solo hit came with this song.
Despite coming straight from the office in London, I was sufficiently well prepared to be able to sport my green The Milkman Of Human Kindness t-shirt, thanks to a quick change on the train. It got spotted by (presumably) another gig attendee at the Roscoe Head, but there were only a couple of other band t-shirts that I was able to notice, Bowling For Soup and Beans On Toast.
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Here is much of the music from the night on Spotify: