Bard from Barking still has plenty of bite

6 April 2023

Billy Bragg revisits some of his most-loved tracks in a set designed to recharge fellow activists and kick cynicism to the curb. This is a singer-songwriter who still has plenty to say, writes Harvey Rae.

Billy Bragg 
Freo Social, 5 April 2023 

Billy Bragg says it best: “I’m the man who can’t be cancelled, but I can be postponed from time to time.” 

Originally scheduled pre-Covid for 2020, his career-spanning three nights on the One Step Forward Two Steps Back tour has been designed, we’re told, so the 65 year old can spend six nights in the same hotel bed in any given city. 

Not that he’s been resting on his laurels in Perth, joining the Solidarity for Curtin Workers strike that morning, speaking and performing songs. He still very much walks the walk, bringing that same protest energy to the evening’s performance and encouraging his politically left fanbase to leave feeling empowered. 

“My job is to make you go home feeling the same, with your activism charged; with your cynicism kicked to the curb,” began one of his most rousing speeches. “That is the power of music. Not the power to change the world, no, but the power to make you believe that the world can be changed.” 

For hardcore fans, tonight’s second show is the most coveted of the three nights. Performing songs from his first three albums, this is Bragg’s earliest and most productive period, the folk-punk of 1983 to 1986 that produced many of his best-loved songs. 

Kicking off with an Acknowledgement of Country, as well as an acknowledgement of his country’s role in colonialism, the Barking, Essex native slides into The World Turned Upside Down. Lifted from 1985 EP Between the Wars, it immediately puts paid to the idea he’ll play his first three albums in order, front to back.  

The smartly paced set, in fact, skips a lot of tracks from those albums, notably more than half of his classic Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, giving plenty of time for Bragg to concentrate on his stand-up storyteller-slash-comedian persona. 

He’s still got the gift of the gab, is as razor-tongued with hecklers as he is good at responding to genuine crowd questions.

(He aptly describes his performance style as swinging between Joe Strummer, the Clash’s punk rock activist frontman, and Max Miller, the legendary UK comedian, telling us we’re in for a Max Miller night tonight.)  

Bragg might be a little greyer than the last time we saw him, but he’s in fine form. He’s still got the gift of the gab, is as razor-tongued with hecklers as he is good at responding to genuine crowd questions, and is generous in his humanitarianism. 

Prior to Which Side Are You On, he addresses the inimitable threat of so-called women’s activists such as Posie Parker, who was recently joined by neo nazis in Melbourne protesting transgender rights. Far right activists posing as radical feminists (or TERFs), Bragg warns, are as dangerous to progress as anyone, with agendas to send same sex couples back into the closet beyond their trans-exclusionary politics.  

At times it’s moving and at others it’s angering, but there’s always a great song to rouse the room again. Early on it’s Milkman of Human Kindness, while Ideology, St Swithin’s Day and It Says Here are big highlights soon after.  

Later, it becomes what could be considered a greatest hits set. Between the Wars might get the lighting guy told off for being too active, but it begins a string of singalong favourites that also includes Levi Stubb’s Tears, a huge To Have and to Have Not, and the ever powerful There is Power in a Union to close the show. 

Following a brief encore break, Bragg returns to tell us his favourite part of any gig is after he sings There is Power in a Union, when the energy and solidarity in the room rises. He uses the opportunity to do an a cappella I Don’t Need This Pressure, Ron, highlighted by the lyric I see no shame in putting my name to socialism’s cause

Followed by his unique take on Walk Away Renee, the show still has plenty of favourites on the table (The Saturday Boy, From a Vauxhall Velox and The Home Front among them), but there’s only one essential still missing.  

There’s time for one more emotionally charged speech before Bragg’s punk classic A New England receives the loudest shout-along of the night, an epic crescendo to an unforgettable night with the legendary Bard of Barking. 

Billy Bragg plays Freo Social again tonight. 

Pictured top: Billy Bragg has plenty to sing about and still walks the walk as an activist. Photo supplied

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Author —
Harvey Rae

Harvey is a familiar face in the Perth arts scene, having been a journalist, promoter, events manager, artistic planner, songwriter, radio host, marketer, publicist, label owner and more. Music may be his first love, but you'll regularly find him at anything comedy, theatre or food related. Harvey gravitates towards the swings but sometimes forgets he’s too big for a playground flying fox, too.

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