Nearly two years ago I went to see Billy Bragg at Turner Hall. More because I thought I should than because I really wanted to. The show was surprisingly good, and I didn’t regret for a minute missing Ha Ha Tonka in Madison (which should give you an idea of how good it was). He was exceedingly charming and funny, and the songs, played solo on electric guitar, were well-chosen and intense.
So when Billy Bragg came to Madison’s Barrymore Theater, I went because I really wanted to. What a difference a city makes. I hadn’t expected to pay $25 for a political rally, and had someone told me that’s what I was doing I would have passed. The show started innocently enough. For the first half Bragg was seated playing an acoustic guitar for a selection of the many Woody Guthrie songs that he has set to music. It was a fitting birthday tribute to a Guthrie who has reached a wider audience thanks to the efforts of Bragg and Wilco. He played many songs off of the Mermaid Avenue records in addition to some not yet released. “Way Down Yonder in the Hollow Tree,” which posits “there ain’t nobody who can sing like me,” was terrific as was “Against the Law” which catalogs all the things that are illegal in Winston Salem, a list so long that the list of legal probably would have been shorter. Admittedly I could have done without the extensive explanation of the sexual subtext of “Ingrid Bergman,” but the randy crowd seemed to enjoy it.
In fact, there wasn’t much they didn’t love. All I heard from friends afterward was how amazing it was. Apparently they didn’t mind that he only played (what felt like) eight songs in the second half and spent the rest of the time speechifying. He had joined the solidarity sing-along that noon at the capital, so you would think he would have it all out of his system. But if there is anything he likes better than music, it’s talking about social justice, especially when he has a sold out audience of encouragement. I was bored, frankly. Next time Bragg is in the area I likely won’t feel the need to go.