Touring to fight the British National Party
on the eve of important local elections, Billy Bragg’s Hope Not Hate tour was always going to have a heavy political
emphasis. Thankfully though Billy mixed pop and politics with plenty of humour
to provide an excellent though highly charged evening out.
More than the last time I saw him live a
couple of years ago, tonight’s gig at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire was more about Bragg’s between song banter
than the songs themselves. This ranged from warnings about the kind of voter
apathy that will let the hated BNP in to hilarious anecdotes on his recurring dreams about David Cameron, ipods v vinyl and
a discussion with Paul Weller about soul music in the 80s.
The music seemed almost secondary –
a bit too secondary for me though I appreciate that music wasn’t the primary motivation for Billy on this tour. Some of the best Bragg originals featured included a very moving Tank Park Salute,
written for Billy’s father who died when Billy was only in his teens, as well as Valentines’ Day Is Over and the
evergreen Levi Stubbs’ Tears. The song mix was about 60:40 between personal
songs and the more overtly political numbers.
For most of the gig, Billy was abetted superbly
on keyboards by Ian “Mac” McLagan of the (Small) Faces and more recently Bragg’s backing band The Blokes. Among the songs partciualrly enhanced by Mac were an excellent cover of Booker T &
The MGs’ Green Onions, an effectively downcast Walk Away Renee (Version) and a Lover Sings, the first song in Billy’s
canon to feature Hammond organ.
The overall set list was biased towards
Billy’s early albums in the 80s. With their recent re-release with extra
tracks and a return to a more directly political emphasis, the Hope Not Hate tour returned Billy to his 80s roots in more
ways than one. This was further enhanced by the surprising return of his former
band-mate and school friend Wiggy for a rollicking A13.
Support for the tour was provided by the
excellent Seth Lakeman and his three-piece band who played an all-too-brief set of contemporary and traditional songs inspired
by the legends of Dartmoor. With a much better sound mix than his recent gig
at Carling Academy Islington, Seth played a good representative mix of songs from his three LPs. The thrilling highlights were when he frenetically bowed his driving violin though this was sadly witnessed
by all too few people. Many Billy Bragg fans preferred to stay in the bar, sadly
far more musically conservative than the headliner would like them to be…
Musically conservative maybe though I doubt
if there were many Tory voters at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Not the best
Billy Bragg performance I’ve ever seen but still an excellent, passionate and hilarious night out. The very sad postscript though is that the BNP won even more seats in Billy’s beloved home-town of
Barking than was predicted. The struggle goes on…