Published Nov 23, 2009Anytime Billy Bragg plays a set, the atmosphere is closer to that of a political rally than that of your typical rock show. Walking into the Commodore Ballroom on Saturday night, the merch table was littered with pamphlets, serving as a reminder that Bragg had recently taken time out of his touring schedule to support striking workers in Quebec and appeal to Canadian Parliament about copyright laws.
Once the folk punk troubadour took the stage, he spent nearly as much time talking as he did singing, speaking out against the British Nationalist Party before launching into an explosive version of Woody Guthrie's "All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose." Concertgoers raised their fists during the workers' anthem "There Is Power in a Union" and hollered along to the chorus of "To Have and to Have Not." Bragg milked the communal atmosphere, referring to the crowd as his "brothers and sisters" before launching into the audience tribute song "I Keep Faith." (Ironically, one fan keeled over in the middle of the floor just moments later.)
Despite the heavy subject matter, Bragg never came across as condescending, joking with crowd and poking fun of the CFL, as well as Canada's "national obsession with hand sanitizer." He started laughing during the whistling solo of "This Saturday Boy" before breaking into tongue-in-cheek interpretations of "Smoke on the Water" and "Seven Nation Army," noting that some "geezers" in the audience probably didn't realize why the latter was funny.
The evening's only lull came during newer songs like "If You Ever Leave," which came off as schmaltzy compared to his fiery early work. Thankfully, Bragg seemed to realize this too, as the set was made up primarily of '80s material. He ended the show with "A New England," a rapturous singalong that left audience members thinking that maybe Bragg's professed "faith in community" isn't so far-fetched after all.