No words, by this or any other artist, sum up what it feels like to spend two hours in the company of Billy Bragg when he's at the top of his game. Which he usually is, and he most definitely was when he played Islington Assembly Hall last week.
An evening with Bragg can certainly put you through the emotional wringer, Levi Stubb's Tears are rarely the only ones running down cheeks, but you're always left feeling inspired, impassioned, and, part of something. Part of something good. At various points the gig can feel like a sympathetic chat with a beloved friend about their romantic woes (The Man in the Iron Mask outlines the landscape of the heart in an almost brutally stark fashion), an indie disco (Greetings to the New Brunette and Accident Waiting to Happen are just two of the songs that elicit fervent singalongs), or even a good old fashioned left wing political rally. I was one of many glassy eyed old Trots raising a fist to There is Power in a Union).
As a callow youth, and huge Billy Bragg fan (he helped me through some difficult teenage nights), I couldn't truly resolve the duality of these wonderful, heartfelt songs of relationships (Love Gets Dangerous and A Lover Sings, neither played in Islington, were my favourites) with the politicised likes of It Says Here and Between the Wars (again both sadly absent from the set list).
I'd clearly created a false dichotomy. For what underpins, and guides, everything in Billy Bragg's now extensive back catalogue is love. Love of one's partner, love of one's friends, and love of humanity. I seem to recall reading interviews when Billy said that some people thought his songs were all political but actually about 80% of them were love songs. I'd go so far as to say they're ALL love songs.
Kicking off with Sexuality and The Warmest Room he's clearly in no mood to hang around and knows how to get a party started. Each time I go to a Bragg gig there's a point where I wonder why I left it so long since the last one. This time it happened about five seconds in to the first song.
If Levi Stubb's Tears and The Man in the Iron Mask were the most lachrymose ballads performed it's fair to say there was plenty of competition. I Keep Faith's tale of a couple (or perhaps the Labour Party) determined to make it through a tough patch or Handyman Blues' depiction of a lover so hapless at DIY that he's given up on putting up shelves or building garden sheds to write poetry beautiful enough to build a roof over his loved ones heads.
Handyman Blues is as funny as it as sad and that's an oft-overlooked part of the Billy Bragg experience. He's one of the few artists where the bits between the songs are as good as the songs but he doesn't stop there, chucking in ad-libs in between lines, and altering entire lines, even entire verses, to reflect the current political climate. It's like a less smug Have I Got News For You with better tunes.
The one song that is ripe for, and always gets, that treatment is Waiting for the Great Leap Forward and, surely enough, we're not left disappointed there. But even more powerful is new song Saffiyah Smiles, written in honour of Saffiyah Khan who was famously photographed defiantly smiling in the face of a neo-fascist EDL supporter during a march in Birmingham. A couple of verses critiquing 'Cosplay Nazis', 'angry white men dressed like Elmer Fudd', and spurious and ugly notions of 'soil and blood' are punctuated with Victor Hugo's maxim that 'to love is to act' before ending on the line 'this is what solidarity looks like' repeated ten times.
You can call us politically naïve, you can accuse us of virtue signalling, you can make haughty and punctilious rejoinders until the alt-right cows come home but that's part of what's got us into this great political mess of nationalist nonsense, rampant individualism, and dehumanising the other. I prefer Bragg's world of solidarity and comradeship, a place where you can even try and understand the point of view of your political opponent.
Take the rather cornily titled Full English Brexit (if anyone was gonna call a song that it might as well be Billy Bragg) with its list of immigrant related woes:- 'folks speaking Russian in Tesco', eating unfamiliar food, drinking coffee instead of tea. Correctly it skewers the absolute calamity that is Brexit and, even more correctly, it's not afraid to make clear that racism and xenophobia played a large part in that vote. But, and the song could be taken many ways, it also suggests that these people aren't so much monsters as confused and marginalised. Any serious discourse should always challenge its own assumptions, pandering to an accepted narrative is a coward's way forward.
The sort of person who'd think building a wall between Mexico and the USA could ever be anything but an absolutely terrible idea. With his love of Americana and Woody Guthrie (Woody's She Came Along To Me cropped up early doors during the show), Bragg's always had one eye on the other side of the Atlantic and at the Assembly Hall we're treated to a cover of Vermont folk singer Anais Mitchell's Why We Build the Wall, a song that pulls no punches in pointing out that the real enemy, to Trump, is not Mexicans but poor people. He just hates them. Bigly.
Nobody could be more in the business of bridge, instead of wall, building than Billy Bragg and, after a rousing finale of A New England, there's time enough to reflect on just how hagiological anything I'll end up writing may sound. Very, as it turns out.
Billy Bragg's not a saint, he'd have played Strange Things Happen, The Myth of Trust, and Tank Park Salute if that was the case, but he's a brilliant songwriter, generous performer, and, like the milkman of human kindness, he has left an extra pint. Not just for you - but for everyone. I'll drink to that.
With thanks to Pam and, especially, Gary. x