Monday, March 13th, 2006
Back To Basics
This past weekend the city of Toronto was blessed with a healthy dose of Billy Bragg, who was in town doing interviews, shows and generally just being man about town before heading down to Austin this week to be a keynote speaker at SxSW and kick off a compact US tour. All this activity was to celebrate the release of his new Volume 1 box set, but I’d like to think that it’s also Billy finally making good on his promise back in July 2003 to come back and play some of his own songs for us. It probably wasn’t, but I like to think it was.
The show at the Opera House was quite thoroughly sold out and there was more excitement in the air than at a usual gig, but a Billy Bragg show isn’t just a concert – it’s as much a socialist rally and public speaking engagement as it is a musical performance and having been absent from our shores for so long, Torontonians were understandably anxious for him to come out and grace us with his wry commentary on the politics of state, society and the heart. But first the opener, who hadn’t been announced in advance and whose existance wasn’t entirely certain until she showed up, was one Simon Wilcox. She killed some time with some generally unimpressive affected folk grunge, name-dropping, (unsuccessful) guitar tuning and uninteresting banter. It seemed that she talked to the audience more than she played, assuming incorrectly that anyone was at all interested in hearing her talk about herself. Thankfully, she was over and out after half an hour – and then it was Billy’s time.
Though he apologized for bringing his English cold across the Atlantic, there was no sign of any ill effect in his performance or energy levels. He’s one of those rare artists who is just as entertaining and engaging no matter if he’s playing or not. His rapid fire wit didn’t miss a beat whether he was offering support for the Ontario college staff currently on strike, confessing his fears of being eaten by a polar bear or debating the Incredible Hulk-repellant properties of his guitar with a young (like 7 or 8 years old) concert-goer. He was also quick to quip during the outro for “Greetings To The New Brunette” where he quipped (paraphrased), “Makes me look around and wonder where Johnny Marr is… I bet Morrissey thinks the same thing”. But he also showed his respect for The Smiths during an acoustic “busker” portion of the set with his cover of their “Jeanne”, as well as a rather nice if bumpy cover of The Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work”.
And then, of course, there were his own songs. With the exception of some Mermaid Avenue songs, he drew almost exclusively from the four early albums that comprise the new box set. It’s just as well that he was touring solo, just him and an electric guitar – I don’t think those stripped down, early songs wouldn’t have sounded nearly as vital and visceral had the Blokes been along for the ride. All in all, we got an hour and forty-five minutes of classic Bragg though I certainly wouldn’t have minded hearing a little more from Worker’s Playtime, but have no complaints with the material that was played. Hell, I finally got to hear “Levi’s Stubbs Tears” played live and even figure out the chords for the bridge, something that’s been plagueing me for many years now (G-D-F#5-G5 and then A5 at the end, if you were wondering). Interestingly, the encore, which contained all the old “hits” that most of the audience was clamoring for, was pretty much exactly the set he played at his instore at the HMV flagship location on Yonge St earlier that afternoon. Still great, but kind of anticlimactic to have the finale be a set of songs you heard just eight hours ago. But hey – there was better lighting.
Only black mark on the show? I had the misfortune to be standing beside the five most obnoxious people on the face of the earth. At first there were three who wouldn’t shut up through the opener (I didn’t really care to hear her, but would have rather heard her than them) and then before Billy came on, they were joined by a pair of girls who made them seem like choirboys by example. They actually talked – nay, YELLED – through almost the whole of Billy’s set. It was unbelievable. It was like together, they’d formed some giant Voltron of obnoxiousness. Eventually the security guard came by and told them to shut the hell up, but that was an hour too late. Still, despite this, it was a great great show. And for those who missed the show or just can’t get enough, keep in mind that he will be back in September.
I have photos up from both the in-store and the gig proper and The Globe & Mail poses some questions to the Barking Bard. I can’t imagine that given the opportunity to sit down and talk with Bragg, El Zoilus only asked seven questions – maybe Carl will let us in on the rest of the interview (assuming there is more)? And Billy has compiled a list of recommended listening for Amazon UK.
Michigan Live! talks to Jenny Lewis and So Much Silence has MP3-ified part of her recent performance on KCRW. Also, winners have been selected for passes to her show at the Opera House this Wednesday – thanks to everyone who entered. And now for the results of my unscientific Jenny Lewis, child star poll. While Foxfire and Pleasantville had their supporters, the most overwhelmingly popular film of her ouvre is, not surprisingly, The Wizard. As one entrant put it, “Lewis + Fred Savage + Nintendo’s Powerglove = totally awesome”. So as a treat to all you NES freaks, here’s a Jenny Lewis Wizard soundboard for you to play to your heart’s content. In a dark room. Wearing your power glove.
The Airfields will be holding a CD release party for their new Laneways EP on March 25 at Sneaky Dee’s. They played the same venue just last Sunday as part of Wavelength, for whom they did a short interview.
np – I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness / Fear Is On Our Side