Billy Bragg @ The Gov, Adelaide 4/3/2023

The troubadour from Essex, England, finally made it to The Gov for the first date of his Australian tour. The Bard of Barking was originally meant to be here in April 2020, then 2021 and also 2022. Not content with just “doing a show”, Billy is at the Gov for three consecutive nights, playing his career spanning songs on the first night (this one) and then playing six albums over the next two nights. A tall undertaking but Billy said recently “After more than three decades of travelling around the world in a van, or spending all day flying vast distances to play a gig, I’m looking forward to having some time to explore cities that I usually only get to see between the soundcheck and the show. And this three-night stand format is a way of keeping things interesting, both for me and the audience.” Apparently, this idea stemmed from his last performance at the Gov in 2019. Adelaide wasn’t pencilled in but he had time between his Melbourne and Perth shows, so he did a hastily arranged gig with just him and a guitar. He wrote a set list he didn’t believe in and from that night, this three-night set up exist.

With Billy Bragg releasing his first album in 1983, the first night performance of “career spanning songs” is a big ask with forty years of material to get through. His latest album, The Million Things That Never Happened, released in 2021 got the majority of songs (five) but with eighteen songs in the set list he played from all periods of his career.

With only keyboard player Neil Anderson joining him on stage and a “How’s Your Saturday night?”, Billy commenced proceedings with A Lover Sings from his second album, way back in 1984. Bathed in a white light while at the microphone, all evening, Billy cast a fine commanding figure on stage. Commenting on how long this tour had taken to get here, he told us one of the audience members in that time frame had a heart attack, a heart transplant and had fully recovered and was in fact in the audience. When we were asked “How was your lock down?” he mentioned he won’t comment about lock down in Melbourne. A mournful, but beautiful The Million Things That Never Happened followed.

Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key received loud acclaim. This was a song recorded with the band Wilco for the Mermaid Avenue album. Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained came from watching YouTube during lock down and featured some nice piano playing by Neil Anderson. However, Levi Stubbs Tears was played with guitar only.

Billy told stories. Lots of stories. Stories about the songs, stories about life on the road and stories of a political stance. In fact, many of the stories between songs went longer than the songs themselves.

“I told Woody Guthrie I was playing The Gov tonight. He said The Gov has a great vibe” Billy told us, introducing All You Fascist Bound to Lose, a Woody Guthrie song. For all you youngster reading this, Woody died in 1967.

Sexuality was played with tweaked lyrics and a five-minute story as to why. The Johnny Cash/Pete Seeger sounding Freedom Doesn’t Come for Free came with covid stories and how the time he was accused of hating librarians. “It was libertarians I hate, not librarians. I love books.” King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood was about climate change, and yes, another five-minute story as to how it came about.

“Music cannot change the world” announced Billy “but the belief in music can change things”. He then went into stories of Adele, her songs and the reason why his latest album took six months to be released on vinyl. This led into the highlight of the night, I Will be Your Shield with just piano for accompaniment. Beautiful.

When someone called out a request, Billy told them, “You only have to remember the title of the song. I have to remember the chords and lyrics. Fuck off”.

“This is the closest I get to a Las Vegas residency, three nights at The Gov” gave us The Milkman of Human Kindness with the audience singing the chorus. Billy mentioned he knew Albo. “How did he become Prime Minister? Last time I spoke to him he was a backbencher and interviewed me at a festival. Now he is using my lyrics in speeches”. There is Power in a Union closed the set (yes after another long talk about unions) and there were a few raised fists in the air during the song.

Tank Park Salute started the encore and after another speech, this time about referendums (“be wary of them”), the night closed with Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards.

Billy Bragg maybe an orator and a rabble-rouser, but no matter what you believe in or if you even disagree with some of his stances, he delivers damn fine music and an entertaining show. Yes, he could have probably done another ten tunes in the two hours on stage if he didn’t talk so much, but that’s Billy. That is part of the deal of watching him live.

Billy plays The Gov again Sunday and Monday night as well at Womad on Friday. Don’t miss him.

Live Review By Geoff Jenke

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