About the Performance
2 February 2006 / 19:30 – Barbican Centre, London, England
Tickets: £15 £20 £25 – Sold out
Hosted and curated by Billy Bragg this concert focuses on songs of social engagement and commentary.
Special guests include English folk legend Martin Carthy, Scottish stalwart Dick Gaughan, Maggie Holland and singer-songwriter Robb Johnnson.
From the radical folk protest of luminaries such as Ewan McColl to the more contemplative songs on the role of the individual in society. Social and political commentary has always played a key role in the British music scene reflecting on many aspects of social life from industrial strife to anti-war protest, to general disaffection, alienation and opposition to repressive governments.
Produced by the Barbican in association with BBC Four.
Live at Barbican Centre, London, England
Concert featuring Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, Donovan, Dick Gaughan, Maggie Holland, Andy Irvine, Robb Johnson, Neill & Calum MacColl, Karine Polwart & Chris Wood supported by Martin Barker & Simon Edwards
Do Re Mi (Billy Bragg, Andy Irvine… more )
The Ballad of Tom Joad
Never Tire of the Road
Hard Travelin’ (Woody Guthrie cover) (Singalong with all performers)
WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON? BILLY BRAGG AND COMRADES
The Barbican, London, February 2nd, 2006
I sometimes wonder what we did to deserve Billy Bragg. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he’s a nice guy (or should I say bloke?) and I don’t question the sincerity of his views, and I would be the first to confess that he can write a decent song or two, but doesn’t his brand of simple minded and sanctimonious schoolboy socialism just wear you down after a while? It’s the sort of naïve and haplessly enthusiastic amateurism that would only be tolerated in Britain, where (judging by his audience tonight) he is held in high esteem. But I’m sorry, and if I may use a comedic metaphor, I have to say that for me he’s the Harry Worth of revolutionary socialism.
But then maybe I’m the sort of disenchanted, middle-aged, comfortably-off cynic that Dick Gaughan (one of the stellar list of performers who joined blokey Billy in this BBC 4 sponsored evening of songs of protest) sang about, preferring an easy life of material pleasure to one of continual struggle. Well perhaps. But I don’t see why I have to put up with patronising primary school lectures from Billy the Bloke about the p’lyikul folk tradition, what it means to be English (a subject which, god help us. Billy Bloque is writing a book), the English p’lyikul folk tradition, Billy’s role in the p’lyikul English struggle of the traditional folk – well, I think you get the picture. We’re here to listen to some outstanding talent (on a good day I might even put BB in the lower quartile of that group) celebrate the songs of Woody Guthrie and Ewan McColl in particular, not to suffer the Blokeoid bouncing around the stage like a podgy Leninist Labrador pup with pitiable posture. Enough!
To be frank when I booked these seats the line up was only about half complete. So I was as surprised as anyone when, after Billy and his two accompanying blokes first kicked off with a couple of tunes (including Florence Reece’s ‘Which side are you on’, which gave the evening its title) and then with Robb Johnson sang Woody Guthrie’s ‘I guess I planted’, Donovan walked on the stage. Looking like a portly pixie who’d spent the last thirty years in the magic pie shoppe he briefly presented his credentials – “It was out of Glasgow that I came, and my father was a socialist” – and then, sadly, croaked his way through his mega-hit, Buffy St Marie’s ‘Universal Soldier’.
But the evening got better – Martin Carthy, (who I have come to regard as truly outstanding since I saw him last year, having revisited some of his old stuff that I had hidden away, and explored his newer material) gave us a master class in two short sessions of how English folk music should be played and sung. His well chosen songs were MacColl’s ‘I’m champion at keeping them rolling’ (yikes – a song about British truck drivers?), the moving ‘Company policy’, an angry lament for the lost British sailors of the Falklands war, and the even more moving ‘18th June’ , about THAT famous battle at Waterloo in 1815. If you haven’t listened to Carthy then you should – his droning, picking guitar style is almost unique. But it does remind me a little of Dick Gaughan, son of Leith, with a spine shuddering voice and an astonishingly aggressive and staccato guitar style. In addition to giving us complacent ones a sharp dig in the ribs, Dick sang ‘Outlaws and dreamers’ and Peggy Seeger’s ‘Song of choice’. Frankly I could have listened to him all night and wouldn’t have got too cross about his unyielding dialectic – for a debunking of the romantic myths of Scottish History as refreshing as Michael Marra’s, try and find him singing ‘No gods and precious few heroes’.We got history of a sort from Maggie Holland singing her award winning composition ‘A place called England’ (BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards “Best Song of 1999”). This England, so much admired by Radio 2 listeners, is one where freedom and liberty is assured to all good and true providing we set about growing nasturtiums and runner beans on the land occupied by disused steel works, shipyards etc. Yes friends, it was predictable that this had to be followed by an ensemble performance (Bragg, Gaughan, Holland) of ‘The world turned upside down’, a celebration of the short lived Digger movement of the English Civil War, much feted in a book of the same name by the great Marxist historian Christopher Hill, who like all good scholars never allowed facts to get in the way of an argument. It’s all Golden Age nonsense really, and only goes to confirm my suspicions that all Radio 2 listeners live firmly in a fantasy world. Ironically when I typed ‘The world turned upside down’ into Google one of the first references I got was to a popular song from the seventeenth century lamenting the defeat of King Charles at the Battle of Naseby, and the subsequent suppression of festivities (English good and true) such as Christmas by the radicals and Cromwell’s New Model Army. Strangely this song of protest didn’t get onto the set list.
But some cracking ones did. A real surprise to me was the foursome of Chris Wood, Karine Polwart, and Neill and Callum MacColl – the two sons of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. They performed three songs written by their father, the stunning highlight of which was Chris Wood singing the touchingly cynical ‘The father’s song’. I read that Wood’s 2005 album The Lark Descending is a real cracker – put it on your list, it’s certainly on mine. But before these guys we had, in my opinion, the star turn of the night, Andy Irvine of Planxty fame. Readers may recall my enthusiasm for Irvine from last year’s Planxty gig at the same venue – apparently Irvine is a great Guthrie scholar, and much admired by Mr Bragg. This evening his short performance alone was worth the cost of the ticket. With Bragg and Gaughan he performed Guthrie’s ‘Do re mi’, and solo, playing bouzouki and harmonica a simply jaw-dropping version of ‘Tom Joad’, followed by his own song about Guthrie, ‘Never tired of the road’. Just wonderful. And Billy didn’t do too badly towards the end as he sang his lovely ‘Between the wars’…
But then of course it was time for the dreadful bit when the stage was filled (at least when Gaughan and half the performers could be lured back from the smoking room) and the assembled cast stumbled their way through MacColl’s ‘Dirty old town’. Of course by this time we were all bursting to rush for the barricades, so as soon as the fulsome and largely deserved applause died down we scrambled for the fenced-in taxi rank. “Anyone like to share a cab to the revolution in W4?” – Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate).