Billy Bragg/Darren Hanlon; September 9, 2010; Turner Hall, Milwaukee
I definitely expected Billy Bragg to be political. And I expected him to play solo electric. Of course I expected him to play Woody Guthrie songs. What I didn’t expect was that he would be so funny. And that sense of humor added to his British charm makes his message go down easy. Surveying the cabaret set-up at Turner Hall he observed, “I like the candles, thank you for bringing them.” His tale of a nightmarish visit to Cracker Barrel had us wondering what the hell Billy Bragg was doing eating there. He told of a public radio interview he had done the day before in Minneapolis, as the announcer introduced him “Billy Bragg, sensual… sexy…” Bragg finished her sentence, “socialist.” He grinned, “Too bad it’s too late to put that on the T-shirts.” I should add here that, while that was a pretty good idea, the T-shirts he did have were pretty awesome. An old time milk truck and driver graced the front with the legend “Milkman of Human Kindness.” I found out later that was a song title, which doesn’t make it any less clever. Turns out he is passionate about everything, family, sex, and of course his favorite subject, socialism.
And that makes him a kindred spirit of Woody Guthrie, and a perfect choice to be the one given access to the many songs Guthrie left behind that existed only as words on a page. The success of the Mermaid Avenue project, a collaborative effort with Wilco where they put music to the lyrics, yielded two albums and raised the profile of both artists. While it seems odd at first that a Brit would be given the opportunity to interpret something so intrinsically American, it’s hard to argue with the end results. “Way over Yonder in the Minor Key,” the braggadocios ditty which boasts “there ain’t nobody that can sing like me” was one of my favorites from Volume 1 and hearing it live was a special treat. As it turns out I had been totally missing the point of “Ingrid Bergman,” I thought he really wanted to make a movie. Instead the whole song is more lustful than that, and I had been completely missing the double entendres. Thank goodness Bragg was there to explain it to me.
I hadn’t seen Bragg since the first Chicago Fleadh, the Guinness sponsored festival held at the Arlington racetrack. It was a hot day in ‘98, water was scarce and heat stroke was epidemic, but one of my pleasures of the day was seeing Bragg join Wilco during their set and vice-versa to feature some of the songs from the soon to be released Volume 1. I don’t remember much of the set other than that, but I felt like I needed to see Bragg again. Other than the Guthrie songs, the only tune I knew tonight was the hit “Sexuality” which is on one of the two Bragg CDs I own. Not knowing the songs was definitely not a deterrent to enjoying the show, his skillful songwriting saw to that. Admittedly his constant charm and sly wit helped too.
Darren Hanlon was equally charming in his opening slot. Despite the fact that he is from Australia, this was the third time I’d seen him, the first was opening for the Magnetic Fields in Winter Park FL, the second at a little cantina on 6th St during SXSW. While the SXSW set was a little underwhelming, tonight he proved himself to be just as delightful and charismatic as he had been in Florida. His way with a story is reminiscent of John Wesley Harding and he regaled us with tales of brushing elbows with a famous Australian actress and not being able to catch a bus. The latter arose from a challenge to himself to write a song about the most mundane thing he could think of, but the song was anything but. I haven’t missed an opportunity yet to see Hanlon and it’s safe to say I won’t in the future. Same goes for Bragg, I hope isn’t ten years till the next time I see him.