If ever there was a time to witness the sonic sermons of Essex troubadour/activist/bloke Billy Bragg then tonight is surely it: wounds still raw from the EU referendum; today’s publication of the Chilcot report; a disintegrating, Corbyn-led Labour; the recent spike in street racism – they all stoke the fire in the belly of the 58-year-old folk-punk hero, setting up what is likely to be more of an event than a gig.
Opening the night is Bristol-based singer songwriter Gaz Brookfield, who pretty much fulfils the role of perfect support act for a simmering West Country crowd: solid songs about cider, roots and travel delivered with a hefty dose of humour and flair. As is often the case though, singer-songwriters shine when things get personal, and Gaz is no different. His anger is an energy on set highlight “Be The Bigger Man”, which twins half-screamed vocals and bully-conquering lyricism to the sound of furiously strummed acoustic guitar to stunning effect.
Songs “Land Pirates Life”, “Godless Man” and “Maps” showcase the depth of his songwriting to a swelling crowd and suggests why Gaz has become the only unsigned artist ever to sell out iconic Bristol venue, The Fleece (four times no less) and is currently receiving glowing endorsement from none other than The Levellers.
Tonight was only ever going to be about one man though and with the sell-out Frome crowd well lubricated, it’s the turn of headliner Billy Bragg to exercise his back catalogue and please the punters. Opener “Accident Waiting To Happen” is performed with the zeal and conviction of a songwriter half his age, all trebly electric guitar and thick Barking brogue. Another three politically charged songs are aired before the multi-generational audience are properly addressed: “Sorry about that. I just had to get those off my chest!” declares Bragg, before informing us that the last time he was on stage was the night after the EU referendum result and this – his first outing since – happens to be on the day of the Chilcot Report. Boy, the stars really do align.
“A Lover Sings” is warmly received before Bragg is joined by touring multi-instrumentalist CJ, who decorates proceedings with flecks of pedal steel, dobro and electric guitar, most notably on a brace of 80’s Johnny Marr co-writes, “Sexuality” and “Shirley” – the former arousing the crowd into the first mass singalong of the night.
At this point, Bragg senses he has the fans eating out of his hands and takes the opportunity to implore them to challenge recent political events by understanding the views of others, not by labelling or ignoring people who’s views contrast your own; as a seasoned activist and campaigner, Bragg knows the dangers of this. Freedom of speech remains though and after a scathing diatribe focusing on the immigration obsessed Trump and Farage, the crowd erupt in yet more applause when Bragg claims that “we need to build societies, not walls”. The volume is eclipsed when the crowd is in full voice during passionate renditions of workers anthems “Between The Wars” and “There Is A Power in a Union”, with Bragg urging the crowd to “sing it for the teachers, sing it for doctors”. Stirring stuff.
Finding ourselves at the embers of a two hour set, Bragg encores with “I Keep Faith”,
a somewhat inspirational speech/rallying cry aimed at the young, alongside the titanic, heartfelt yearning of “A New England”, a song which remains untouched by time.
The “Life’s A Riot…” favourite is every bit as fresh and powerful as it’s unveiling in 1983, even more so when backed by the sound of a crowd at the top of it’s lungs bellowing every word back at the man himself – including the now obligatory additional “verse for Kirsty”, a tribute to late Bragg collaborator Kirsty McColl.
Having spent nearly four decades conquering charts and hearts you’d expect an accomplished performance from Bragg, but it’s the inspirational qualities that burn brightest here. Forever a champion of the young, tonight he may just have inspired tomorrow’s singer songwriters with his powerful blend of passion and timeless tunes – and that can only be a good thing for music and politics alike.