Billy Bragg, Crescent Ballroom, 3/26/13
Melissa Fossum Billy Bragg live at Crescent Ballroom. See the complete slideshow here.
Billy Bragg @ Crescent Ballroom|3/26/13
For his first-ever Phoenix show, Billy Bragg gave his all, of all of his sides -- the young punk firebrand, the activist, the lover, the Woody Guthrie acolyte, the folk malcontent, and the Bard of Barking hawking his new album.
Though the new record, Tooth & Nail, may hew to domestic and philosophical songs, presented in a calmer, pedal-steel-drenched Americana style, Bragg remains plenty provocative in concert.
The show's framework ensured that -- starting with "Ideology" from 1987's Talking with the Taxman about Poetry and ending with an updated version of "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" from 1988's Workers Playtime.
Bragg himself joked about why it took 30 years to perform a show here, saying that to avoid being pigeonholed as a leftist political songwriter, it's necessary to get out and play places like Phoenix. Then he made sure to stick some poignant in-song commentary on the area's unfortunate politics into "All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose," shouting over the closing notes, "Can you hear me, Joe? Woody Guthrie says hi."
After "Ideology," Bragg talked about his recent visit and shows at Austin's SXSW festival, saying that he encountered an unsettling amount of "hipster ambiguity" relative to the political and economic winds of the day. That's the key to Tooth & Nail's "No One Knows Nothing Anymore," he said.
Melissa Fossum Billy Bragg live at Crescent Ballroom.
Guthrie's presence first showed up on "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" from Mermaid Avenue, Bragg's 1998 collaboration with Wilco and the first record that dove into the vast lyrical archive left behind by America's greatest folk singer.
Though Bragg never touched any of the songs Guthrie recorded himself during the two-volume Mermaid Avenue project, he turned to "I Ain't Got No Home" as inspiration for starting his latest album. Saying the 70-year-old-plus song could've been written any time during the past five years, Bragg launched into his new, soulful version of the song, describing the rich bankers and gamblers and the poor workers that exist now as they did in Guthrie's day.
The sharpest part of the night was the mid-set interlude of solo electric guitar songs -- the beyond-satisfying trio of "The Milkman of Human Kindness," "To Have and to Have Not" and "Levi Stubbs Tears," songs from Bragg's early days -- that many in the crowd waited decades to see performed live.