I mentioned a couple of months back that I’d bought a ticket to see Billy Bragg at the Sage Gateshead. Well, last night was the long awaited show, and this is my long awaited report on it!
I went for a bit of a walk after work, as there wasn’t really time to make it worth coming home just to go out again. After a stroll round Newcastle, I crossed the Millennium Bridge and walked around the back bits that I’ve never been round before – this took me past some rather interesting new buildings which I’ll have to go back and wave my camera at. I carried on round and arrived at the Sage in plenty of time. Once the doors to Hall One opened, I took my seat – at the far right of the front row, right up by the stage. This was a bit different for me, as all the other times I’ve been to the Sage, I’ve been in the top level, which is a very long way up indeed. It was really nice to have more than enough leg room – the only problem I have with the venue is that my poor old knees get cramped from sitting for long periods when I’m in the upper levels. Anyway, at 7:30, the support act came on – Wallis Bird, who was so good, she’ll be getting her own post a bit later. Wallis played for around forty minutes, then there was a twenty minute interval, during which I had a rather nice ginger ice cream.
Then came the main part of the show – Billy came on at just after 8:30 and played till not long before 10:30, with only a short pause between the main set and the encore. And he was great. I’ve seen videos, and heard recordings of him playing live, so I had a good idea of what to expect. This is a solo tour, taking him back to the way he started over 25 yeas ago – just a man and a guitar, singing songs, and being generally entertaining. He’s more than likely to interrupt a song to tell a story, make a joke, or indeed say whatever’s on his mind. The musicianship is simple and to the point – no fancy solos, no playing 345 notes where one will do. And the singing, is, well, in his own words:
In a perfect world, we’d all sing in tune
but this is reality, so give me some room
I don’t think anyone (including Billy) would describe his voice as a great one, but somehow, it works. He delivers his songs with so much conviction and passion that it quite honestly doesn’t matter in the slightest that he isn’t the world’s best singer. Think of some crazy hybrid of punk and folk, and you’ve got an idea of where he’s coming from, and maybe understand why he appeals to as many people as he does. Or maybe you won’t.
He opened the set with World Turned Upside-down, which is a personal favourite of mine, and ran through a good selection from his latest album and his extensive back catalogue, all the while engaging with the audience, talking to us as if he was having a chat with some mates in a pub. He mentioned the delightful Gateshead car park, which led to a running Get Carter gag (you’re a big man…). He mentioned how happy he was to be playing the Sage, as it was safe to walk to the hotel, offering a possibly not entirely true story about a visit to Newcastle which nearly ended up with him being kidnapped by a hen party.
Then there was the story of a tour of the US, where he lost most of his vocal range, and ended up sounding like a cross between Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer, so much so that he started developing a persona (“not good at my age…”) who became known as Johnny Clash, which led to stuff about how easy it must have been to play in Johnny Cash’s band, because you only had to do two bits. He played both kinds of Johnny Cash guitar part, and then played Pinball Wizard in the style of Johnny Cash. Maybe you had to be there to appreciate it, but it was very funny at the time…
And there were the songs. Levi Stubbs Tears, There is Power in a Union, the constantly updating Waiting for the Great Leap Forward to close the main set, and an encore than included the essential A New England, including the extra verse from Kirsty McColl’s sublime cover version. Oh, and loads more. A great show, with a performer who knows how to play an audience. While I’d just as happily gone along to see him do a show with his band, seeing him solo was just how I always wanted to see him. when it’s just the guitar and the voice, the songs have to do a lot of the work. And fortunately, Billy can write songs. Lots of them:
 Hey, it worked. Very good, in fact