Published Apr 05, 2013Billy Bragg brought his band to one of western Canada's best venues, a music hall converted from an age-old Methodist church, and he immediately made it his own. Telling long, funny stories between songs while his band waited patiently, Bragg focused on material from his new album, Tooth & Nail, as well as several tangents into the work of folk icon Woody Guthrie.
Australian singer/songwriter Kim Churchill opened the show, but how do you warm up a stage for infamous UK songwriter Bragg? First, Churchill came out barefoot, alone, with his guitar and harmonica, and a stomp-box and tambourine waiting for him on the floor. Then he proceeded to play commanding songs, combining all of those elements and using his feet for the rhythm. Churchill, an ex-busker, had a booming voice, melody-laced when needed, and busted out some guitar chords and finger-tapping that would have made Steve Vai's jaw drop.
Despite Churchill's formidable set, this was Bragg's night, and the now-veteran songwriter and activist was on point. At times though, he spent an uncomfortable amount of time telling stories and jokes, including some hilarious nuggets about Canada ("Isn't Tim Horton just Ronald McDonald in a hockey shirt?"), which definitely effected the pacing of the show. When he did get to the songs, he and his band sounded brilliant in the church acoustics. Bragg's solid yet smooth voice carried brand new material ("No One Knows Anything Anymore," "Swallow My Pride") and a trio of Woody Guthrie covers ("This Machine Kills Fascists" was bang-on as a heavy swing song), as well as some of his own classics from the Mermaid Avenue years and before.
In the most telling moment of the night, Bragg explained that he never considers himself a folk singer, that his interest lies more in soul, roots and gospel music. In that context, songs like "There Will Be a Reckoning," which sounded incredible live, took on a whole new meaning. Bragg is far beyond the times of strumming a folk song in an east London café; he's a world-celebrated songwriter, pouring his heart and soul into songs with depth, songs that can change things if those that listen can find it in themselves to take action. Cue a rousing version of "Sexuality," dedicated to equal marriage rights, and Bragg's invitation to visit him at the merch booth after the show to discuss politics.