Saturday, July 12th, 2003
The Billy Bragg show tonight at the ElMo was correctly billed as “Talking Woody” – as in Woody Guthrie – because that’s exactly what it was. Billy talking about Woody, singing his songs. It was as much a history lesson as concert, with Bragg taking extended breaks between songs to talk about Woody Guthrie’s post-dustbowl days, when he wrote most of the Mermaid Avenue songs, the making of the Mermaid Avenue records and generally provide a deeper insight to the man who’s mostly known as the “This Land Is My Land” guy to some and a dirty Commie to others. Bragg’s reverence for the man and his work was clearly evident but so was his trademark mischeviousness, as he easily traded quips with the audience and took a couple good-natured shots at Morrissey. Unsurprisingly, he had a lot to say about recent world events – though always hilariously so – and his views and opinions were well-received by the sold-out audience of, and this is me taking a wild guess, socialists, lefties and more than a few Commies.
Musically, it was just Bragg, his green Burns Steer (by far the oddest and maybe ugliest guitar ever made – but perfect for him) and a songbook comprised of photocopies of Guthries original lyric sheets, which he took great delight in showing off. It was interesting to hear Bragg’s cockney in place of Jeff Tweedy’s rasp on the songs that Tweedy performed on record, the delivery sometimes adding a different spin to the song, sometimes just sounding odd (“Joe DiMaggio Done It Again”, mainly). He did apologize for not doing any of his own material, but was fairly emphatic that this evening be about Woody. It was an understandable decision but still mildly disappointing, though that was alleviated by his hilariously ad-libbed version of encore closer “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward” (one couplet being, “If you’ve got a website/I wanna be on it” – well Bill, here you go. He did promise to return next year with a proper set of Bragg material, likely to promote the double disc Must I Paint You A Picture? compilation, out October 7. I doubt that show will be nearly as intimate as this one was, but I don’t doubt it’ll be terrific.