Image Courtesy of Billy Bragg
19th October 2012, Hamer Hall
20th October 2012, Melbourne Recital Centre
Billy Bragg has kicked off his lightning Australian tour with two shows in Melbourne and a one night only in Hobart.
Billy is touring the third album in the Woody Guthrie/Mermaid Avenue set, available now as a box-set with documentary DVD. While most centres are getting a split concert (first half of Woody Guthrie numbers, second half of Billy doing Billy Bragg), Melbourne was lucky enough to get a two-night rendezvous (thanks in part to the Melbourne Festival), resulting in one night dedicated to Guthrie tunes and the second night of Billy’s originals.
I’d planned to just see the second night, but a last minute ticket bobbed up through a family member, so I was lucky enough to get to both, allowing the inevitable compare and contrast.
The Woody Guthrie night was at the Hamer Hall in the Melbourne Arts Centre, and a grand venue it is. Curiously, to get to the ground floor you descend several levels which caused some confusion when I went to ask an attendant which way to Door 1 but ended up asking on which platform could I catch the 8.03 to Eltham.
Actually, that didn’t happen.
The beauty of the venue is that like so many playhouse-style venue constructions, you can be in Row V (as we were) and not feel like you’re too far from the action. ‘Intimate’ would be a little of a stretch, but we felt like we were there.
My enduring thought throughout the evening was that in a lesser hands, this could have been a very earnest and worthy affair. Guthrie would have turned 100 in July had he not departed the planet way too early in October 1967, a victim of Huntington’s disease. Apart from his many recordings, Guthrie left an eye-watering volume of unrecorded material and, as Bragg points out, not being overly musical, there were no chords left for those that came after to recreate the tunes that died with Guthrie.
The great strengths of the concert in the hands of Billy Bragg is the undeniable humour he brings to the project, his passion for imagining and realising the great volume of work that would otherwise be housed in a museum such as the Smithsonian.
Right from the off we were treated to that trademark humour and Billy’s redoubtable skills as a performer. Barely had he emitted a sentence or more when he paused and looked at his music stand: “Ah. There should be a songbook with lyrics right there.” His subsequent patter kept the audience entertained and ensured a black-shirted assistant was restoring his cheat sheets to their rightful place in double time.
Apart from the strength of the songs, Bragg truly did provide illumination to the process through which the project came to life and how he was chosen when logic or a sense of entitlement might suggest that Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie or Ramblin’ Jack Elliott would have made more seemingly appropriate choices. I dare say that few who were there will forget the way that Bragg’s explanation built to a crescendo, exploding with, “This machine kills fascists!” as he burst into “You Fascists Are Bound To Lose”.
Similarly, those present may never listen to “Ingrid Bergman” quite the same way! (No spoilers.) How wonderful to hear a song for over 12 years and to then have an entirely different slant put onto it. This was also the case with “My Flying Saucer” — thankfully we have myriad notes made on the song-sheets by Guthrie to know that even he could imagine a song to be in a tempo of “supersonic boogie”.
Bragg brought out a couple of the favourites from the first album, including the mandatory “Way Over Yonder in The Minor Key”, but resisted crowd entreaties to sing “California Stars”. There was time, motivation and context enough to squeeze in two Billy Bragg originals and ended rather satisfyingly with version #1 336 of “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards”, a song that must be high on my Google searches for several reasons, not the least of which is that it never does quite stick whether it’s forward or forwards.
Saturday night was a totally different vibe and that was palpable even on the streets around the Melbourne Rectal Centre (and I’m sure it’s been given that moniker before, not just by Billy, but let’s go with the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall for decorum’s sake). It was Caulfield Cup day, so the streets were heavy with short black skirts and fascinators and some already wobbly legs teetering on impossibly high heels.
A different vibe inside the hall too. Gone was the chair, music stand and placid setting of the night before to make way for a standing height mic and two large amps on stage. When Billy took the stage, seemingly enlivened and energised by the fact it was Saturday night, one riff across the strings of his Dyson guitar for the opening of “St Swithin’s Day” was enough to announce that Woody Guthrie had left the building. The hard wood floors and wooden surfaces everywhere might also have helped to bounce a bit of noisy energy around the hall in comparison to the more demure surrounds of Hamer Hall.
Billy Bragg served up great slabs of his back-catalogue in volumes large enough to satisfy the most ardent supporter. He tipped on their head some of those grumbles you occasionally hear about touring artists of many years’ standing. How often do you see an artist who pumps out every track on their most recent album while you’re politely applauding but deep down willing them to play their old stuff?
Two things helped here: Billy’s most recent project, Mermaid Avenue III, had been covered in some detail the night before, and apart from some smaller projects, his most recent major release (Mr Love and Justice) is getting on for four years now.
For all of that, I couldn’t help but notice that this latest album received little if any attention in his two brackets. I would have passed peacefully away if he’d not done “I Keep Faith” as it’s become something of an anthem for his belief in his audience. But that was it for that particular record. I was happy to splash about in all those songs I love from his back-catalogue: “The Price I Pay”, “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”, “The Warmest Room” to mention just a few, but did wonder at the absence of great songs like “Mr Love and Justice”, “Sing Their Souls Back Home” or “O Freedom” from his more recent outing.
The thought didn’t last long. There was more than enough going on to divert, and plenty of atmosphere even in a totally seated venue which, Bragg noted, he tends to sell out with more regularity than the big boozy stand-up halls that smell like piss.
“Maybe that’s a reflection of you the audience as much as my age”. Bragg turns 55 in December.
This might also have something to do with his libation of choice on stage: “throat-coats” tea. If you’re lucky in the remaining gigs, you might just score yourself a slightly soggy souvenir at the end of the evening!
Plenty of diversions and delights throughout the evening, from ironic whistling to some minor re-imagining of his classics. When he leapt into “Waiting for The Great Leap Forwards” before the extensive encores, I had to really guess at what he might finish off with, and then gave myself a healthy face-palm for my troubles when the opening riff ripped the crowd into a frenzy. Bring your singing tonsils and save them for the end if you’re attending.
All in all, a great two nights of entertainment, and greedy bastard that I am, I get to savour a half and half in Canberra on Tuesday night as well.
Hopefully you’re catching him somewhere along the road.
Tuesday 23rd October – Canberra Theatre, Canberra, ACT
Thursday 25th October – QPAC, Brisbane, QLD
Saturday 27th October – Enmore Theatre, Sydney, NSW
Tuesday 30th October — The Prince Bandroom, St Kilda
Wednesday 31st October – Town Hall, Adelaide, SA
Friday 2nd November – Astor Theatre, Perth, WA