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Review Sun Jun 24 2012

Review: Billy Bragg @ Old Town School of Folk Music, 6/22

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(Photos by Joshua Mellin)

I am generally turned off by musicians who spend more time chatting than singing at shows. But I could've listened to at least another hour of Billy Bragg talking about Woody Guthrie (now a century old) at Old Town School of Folk Music on Friday. On his current tour, Bragg is splitting shows with Guthrie's songs (many of which he recorded with Wilco during the Mermaid Avenue sessions) followed by his own material. Armed with only an acoustic guitar at the start, Bragg spent as much time playing Guthrie's songs as talking about the legendary folk singer, his impact on successors and the process of putting music to words left on thousands of pages. He noted early on that Guthrie, like himself, wasn't trained as a music writer. (At this point, Bragg said that he can read a lyric he wrote as a teenager and instantly recall how he wanted it to sound.) Guthrie's lyrical layouts and footnotes were guides, but Bragg's melodies are still guesses. Lost are the tunes passed down through generations, from those that his grandmother taught him ("The Unwelcome Ghost") to what he learned by osmosis while scraping by in the Texas panhandle ("Don't You Marry", which was jokingly implied to have been learned from Robert Johnson) to others with unknown origins ("Black Wind Blowing"). But every story was a history lesson that captivated the audience. He talked about Jay Bennett's extensive influence on Mermaid Avenue, especially on "Another Man's Done Gone" (presumably written while Guthrie knew death was inevitable) with Jeff Tweedy pumping raw emotion into the vocals. When he mentioned that a particular line was the catalyst for wanting to record a song (or to research the song's origins further), it was almost like everyone made a mental note for when he sang the line. It was fascinating to hear him present songs and stories for which he's very passionate about, and for them to be received so warmly.

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After a brief intermission, Billy Bragg strapped on an electric guitar and delivered a set of his own songs. "The Short Answer" made clear immediately that this would not be the same as the first set. The hoots and hollers of recognition drowned out the first few words. His political banter increased considerably. A brief aside about a soccer match between Germany and Greece earlier in the day, and its metaphorical significance in Europe's current economy, sputtered out of control when it became about American football vs. soccer. (A gentleman behind me heckled an American football supporter by saying, "At least you use your feet [in soccer]." I have no idea what that meant.)

Maybe the most notable part of the second set was Bragg talking about the power of live music and why he continues to play. "Never Buy the Sun", a scathing attack on the UK tabloid's phone-hacking scandal, was exhibit #1 when he discussed the first time he played it (within a week of the scandal breaking) and the audience's spontaneous applause. He very succinctly put how live music performance, especially by someone who's political, has the power to make people realize that they're far from alone in how they feel about an issue while reminding us that musicians do not make change, so it's left to audiences to do so. However, strangely, soon after that he ended the evening with a singalong about incontinence that had many people turning an eyebrow and saying or thinking, "He's not going to close with one of his hits?" It was an odd choice to end 2+ hours of music. Fortunately, those 2+ hours held plenty of moments to overcome the ending and hopefully gave everyone a newly deserved appreciation for Woody Guthrie.

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RK / July 4, 2012 11:18 AM

On the "Never Buy the Sun" song -- this blog has some good context (including responses in the comments)

http://studentactivism.net/2011/07/11/scousers-never-buy-the-sun/

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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