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Billy Bragg at the Grand Ballroom, New York, NY

By on Oct 26, 2008 in Music

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Tonight I had the privilege of seeing Billy Bragg live for the first time. The show was extra special because it was Adam’s Birthday present … and it was awesome.

Part Nader Rally, part punk rock show, part acoustic performance at a coffee shop, on-stage, Billy Bragg, is not like any performer I’ve ever seen – partly because he spent about as much time talking as he did playing. He bitched out an audience member who was heckling him about war in Ireland. He talked about the excitement he felt in the US over this election and warned us that, like Britain when Blair became PM after Thatcher, our expectations were high and likely to not be met. However, if Obama is elected, we shouldn’t be cynical because this election, while it doesn’t represent a change in the world, it does represent possibility. He was so good that I even enjoyed one of my least favorite songs – “Sexuality.”

There were two especially profound moments for me though. The first was when he related an anecdote about going to see The Clash at the first Rock Against Racism show. At the time he was working in an office with a bunch of racist, sexist assholes but he never said anything to them because he felt like he was alone in his disgust. After going to the Clash show, his perspective changed and he went into work the next Monday and told the guys in his office what he thought. The point of the story was that people say that “what we are doing here is preaching to the choir” but he sees it as a way to come together and become invigorated with the notion that we are not alone in our beliefs. Then we can go out in the world and stand up for what is right with the backing of that knowledge.

The second special moment for me involved the interesting crowd. There were 2 meat-headish guys standing in front of us. Not the kind of guys you’d think would be at a Billy Bragg show. One of them was particularly into the show. When Billy began playing “There’s Power In a Union,” this guy along with half the crowd raised his fist for every “The Union Forever” and he dude-hugged his friend at every “With our brothers and our sisters from many far-off lands/
There is power in a Union.” The friend – like many in the crowd – seemed a little uncomfortable at first but by the end of the song he was raising his fist with everyone else.

When I was a teenager, I would go to shows and be profoundly moved by the energy of the crowd – the bodies swaying together, the voices singing together, the towering-yet-accessible guy on stage. That’s a feeling that is – for better or worse – no longer really a part of my life.

Tonight’s show was a grown up version of that teenage feeling of camaraderie, energy, and hope and Billy Bragg is nothing short of a modern Woody Guthrie.*

* In fact, he played a Woody Guthrie song and noted how poignant and relevant the lyrics to Guthrie’s songs are today.

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