Billy Bragg may have had plans to tour Australia in 2019, but it wasn’t until four years later that he succeeded.
This week at the Enmore Theatre, the English singer-songwriter and left-wing activist performed across three nights as a part of his ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’ tour. The shows see Bragg performing a different setlist each night: a career spanning set on night one, songs from his first three records on night two, and songs from the next three records on the final evening.
Bragg’s Australian tour has been halted twice as a result of the COVID pandemic. At last this year, fans were finally able to see him perform. The majority of concertgoers appeared to be fans from Bragg’s heyday, sporting shirts from old tours and reminiscing about past shows. However, there was also a crop of younger fans – a sign that the self-described Bard from Barking’s music endures.
Bragg, now 65, first rose to prominence in the 1980s for his anti-Thatcher anthems and bringing leftist politics into music. His 1985 EP, Between The Wars, reached the UK Top 20 and its title track was an unwavering symbol of solidarity with the infamous Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. Distinguished by his thick Essex accent, working class roots, and lack of any ‘star’ image, Bragg became pop music’s everyman.
The Bard of Barking, the lad himself, Billy Bragg at the Enmore, putting fire in our belly and love in our hearts. pic.twitter.com/HzhdbCBSox
— Will Duckworth (@willduck) March 21, 2023
As Bragg entered the ’90s, his work mellowed and his songs became more personal on albums such as Workers’ Playtime, Don’t Try This At Home, and William Bloke. He would also go on to collaborate with the likes of Wilco, Kirsty MacColl, and Australia’s own Archie Roach.
But his activism hasn’t stopped. His latest record, 2021’s The Million Things That Never Happened, is a commentary on the pandemic, and as ever with Bragg’s work, continues to push for social justice.
On Monday night, Bragg performed several songs from the album, as well as some reworked favourites. ‘Sexuality’, originally released in 1991 as a message of solidarity with the gay community, has had its lyrics altered to show support for the trans community. The line “and just because you’re gay I won’t turn you away / if you stick around I’m sure that we can find some common-ground” has now become “and just because you’re they I won’t turn you away / if you stick around I’m sure that we can find the right pronouns”.
“I had a fan come up to me after a show once,” said Bragg during his performance. “And he said to me, ‘daring to have a pint with a gay bloke isn’t so revolutionary anymore’. And I realised that he was right – I needed to update the lyrics.
“The fight has moved. It’s with the trans community now.”
You can take comfort in the fact that for this one evening, you have been sitting in a room with people that all feel the same way that you do.
During the concert, Bragg chatted with the audience about everything from Nazis infiltrating the anti-trans movement and performing songs on the picket line, to YouTube rabbit holes and visiting nature reserves in Australia. At times, his convivial anecdotes almost felt like stand-up. At others, his genuine enthusiasm for social justice and political causes stirred a similar sentiment in the crowd.
“You can take comfort in the fact that for this one evening, you have been sitting in a room with people that all feel the same way that you do,” he said.
But Bragg also had a message for those who may have been less certain.
“There are some people in the audience tonight who I’ll refer to as ‘geezers like me’, since that’s the most favourable way I can put it. They see what I’m talking about – trans rights, women and girls’ safety – and they go, ‘I’m not sure about that, Billy.’
“These geezers were with me through the miners strike, through Thatcher and all the rest. But now that they’ve gotten older, they’re not sure anymore. Well, I’ll tell you something.
“Think about what your 25-year-old self would do if they were sitting on the fence. What side would they fall on? And that’s the side you need to pick.”
— Jess 🌱🕊 (@_outRAGEjess) March 20, 2023
Bragg has always been about solidarity and fostering communities – in direct opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s claim that there was “no such thing as a society”. Many of his conversations with the audience that evening were bookended with the phrase “brothers, sisters, siblings” in order to ensure everyone across the gender spectrum felt included.
It’s clear that for Bragg, whose career in music is approaching its 40th anniversary, the need to fight the good fight is still as strong as ever. On Wednesday, he performed with striking ABC staff on the picket line. He is also active on Twitter, even joking during the concert about how much he enjoys debating others on the social media app. But he’s gained a sense of pragmatism about what he does.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time now,” he said. “And if there’s one thing I’ve realised, it’s that music cannot change the world, but what it can do is inspire belief. Music can make you believe that the world has the ability to be changed.”
Main image Central News.