Review: Billy Bragg, Union Chapel, London

Remarkable singer-songwriter Billy Bragg stopped over for two nights at Islington’s magnificent Union Chapel and we headed down on a cold, rainy Monday night to warm our ears with the sounds of Bragg’s guitar.

Billy Bragg, in his 30-plus year musical career, has always been known for voicing his political views on any given platform, and his fans love him for exactly that. The edges may have gotten a little softer but his passion remains undimmed.

He takes the stage – just the man and his guitar – and the first riffs of A Lover Sings echo through the halls of the Union Chapel. He wastes no time starting a conversation about what has been on every gig-goers mind for the past 10 days. Then Bragg urges the audience put themselves into the position of refugees and with that giving the next song, Distant Shore, a whole new meaning. Originally recorded in 2002 for his album England, Half English, the song’s lyrics, “I escaped my tormentors by crossing the sea, what I cannot escape is my memory.” Take on a whole new political meaning tonight.

One of the many things we love about seeing Billy Bragg live is his interaction with the audience. It feels like seeing your mates play and having a chat in between. So with long conversations and monologues followed by celebratory applause, Bragg’s set list may not be as long as other bands’, but he more than makes up for it with intensity and interaction.

The folk singer takes his inspiration from all walks of life, one of them being American songwriting legend Woodie Guthrie. And as he talks about cowboy singers and their pedal steel guitars, he quotes Joanna Newsom in saying, “It’s not my tune, but it’s mine to use,” as he leaps into the tunes of The Unwelcome Guest. Billy Bragg jumps back into the political and anthropological analysis with Why We Build The Wall, an Anais Mitchell cover, and Never Buy The Sun.

In the last third of the show, he treats us to more personal songs about love and relationships. He speaks for all the men in the room it seems with the Handyman Blues, which portrays the picture of a man who can write the greatest of songs but you should never trust him with a hammer.

There is Power in The Union is Bragg’s last song before the encore. The 1986 song is an anthem for all factory workers and working class, struggling men who want to fight for better treatment. Once again, Billy Bragg’s Americana touch with an Essex twang is unparalleled. Billy Bragg’s passion for music, and his activism, is uncanny and somewhat aspirational, too.

Billy Bragg, Union Chapel, London, 23/11/15