Focusing on the positive
Published: 26/06/2012 by: http://www.seacoastonline.com
Billy Bragg brings his music to Portsmouth on June 30
When you Google Billy Bragg's name and take a look at the first few pages of results that populate the query, you find a lot about a man who has made a career off writing songs, playing guitar, and speaking his mind as he sees fit.
When you finally figure out how to get your phone to dial over to his pad in London, what you get is a man who is passionate about football (soccer). And there's nothing wrong with that. It just isn't that clear on Google ...; You may just find yourself off-guard for a second — for the list you've cultivated consists predominantly of questions related to music, with a smattering of politics thrown in for good measure.
That's what makes Billy Bragg so interesting, and so special. As we'll witness when he takes the stage at The Music Hall on Saturday, June 30 — he always keeps you on your toes. His wit and his craft as a performer are never dull.
"Well, don't you want to know how it turned out?" said Bragg during a recent interview (...;was just starting to get into the questions). "With the match? Don't you want to know how it turned out? We tied 1-1."
Bragg then lays out how the rest of the tournament will go — how all the pools are set up, and how, if they (England) happen to make it (Bragg chuckles slightly at the notion) to the finals, it would fall in-between his dates in New Hampshire and Vermont.
"OK, we can talk about music now."
Bragg has spent the better part of four decades crafting tunes that resonate with the folks who tune in. He's a political activist who uses his art to spread his views and generate a response. He welcomes those who walk both sides of the line.
He's on the road (this time around) in support of Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday. Guthrie, one of Bragg's greatest influences, was also the focus of his recently re-released collection of tunes that made up the "Mermaid Avenue Sessions," which he recorded with the band Wilco. "Mermaid Ave...;" consists of lyrics Guthrie penned and left to his archive, which Bragg was granted access to in the mid-'90s.
Bragg sings (from "Be Kind to the Boy on the Road"), "You might think he's wrong standing there on that highway / O' what a foolish lad! / But you yourself might be standing on that highway / If you'd had his troubles in your hands."
"Guthrie was the father of the tradition of music I'm into," Bragg stated. "He was a great influence on Joe Strummer and, of course, Strummer was a big influence on my punk roots, so I suppose it makes sense that I got into him and admired his stance as a songwriter. He never wrote a cynical song in his life.
"Cynicism is one of our biggest enemies in today's cultural landscape. And it bleeds out into everyday life. It chips away at your dreams and aspirations — and that's not right. Let's focus on the positives. Let's focus on human rights. It amazes me that the richest nation in the world (America) has no universal health care. Cynicism — politics — plays a huge role in that. They place ads on the telly that are meant to scare you. In Europe it's illegal to place political advertisements about. We don't believe in bullying."
Bragg took to music at a rather young age. The guidance counselor, or "career master" in his school took all the kids to the Ford Motor Company once a year to show them what their futures held for them after schooling had expired (it was that or the military).
"Everybody's dad worked there," Bragg said. "Forty thousand people were employed there. It was just sort of expected of you. When I told the career master that I didn't think I was cut out for that sort of work, I was asked, 'Well, what will you do?' I said, 'I figure I might try playing guitar, but we'll see.'"
Disillusioned by his musical career, Bragg ended up giving the military a shot for a quick spell, but wound up paying around 175 Euro to get out.
"The farther you made it — the more they educated you — the more you had to pay to get out," Bragg said. "I was being trained to drive around in tanks. I didn't make it much past the part where you start throwing a grenade (chuckles)."
So back to the music he went. And thank goodness he did. Bragg is a man who has always done things his own way — much like Guthrie. From the way he put himself in front of people to earn a record contract, to the current ways he goes about business in the industry today, Bragg has always been an independent and a revolutionary.
"While the record industry tanks, the music industry is thriving," declared Bragg. "People are seeking out music more and more. And it's much easier to find and figure out today then it was 15 years ago. I'm finding all sorts of groovy theaters like The Music Hall to play. It's a great escape from the dark bars, though I still love them. It's just the people that are my age...; well, they're just over that scene."
Bragg's performance at The Music Hall will consist of two sets. The first will be in celebration of Guthrie's centennial — more of an acoustic mix. The second will be more electrified and more of what you'd find Billy usually doing.
"Like any gig I play, I hope there's some laughing involved. I hope there's some cheering, and I hope there's some crying even. I want people to walk away feeling invigorated, like folks did at live shows back in the mid-50s. Inspired to chase whatever it is they're looking for. If you're after it, it's possible."
However, if England ends up making the finals, the show may end up being all about football. I may just end up having a conversation with you all — while hanging out at the bar."
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By Christopher Hislop
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