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Billy Bragg Preaches to the Choir

By Gary Wien

originally published: 10/20/2008

(OCTOBER 19, 2008 -- WEST LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- Man, did I need this! Part folk-rock show, part storyteller show, and part Barrack Obama rally - it was my first time catching Billy Bragg live and it was definitely worth the wait!

Bragg made a stop at Monmouth University's Pollak Theatre on Sunday night as part of the first gigs on his U.S. tour. The UK folk rocker's political views are well known and it was so refreshing to see an artist unabashedly putting politics into a set. In a time when artists like Bruce Springsteen get criticized for taking 5-10 minutes out of a 4-hour concert to reveal a political message that is personal to them, Bragg throws politics out there from the first song until the end. He's one of the few people in the world that grabs the Liberal title and runs with it, unafraid that Americans have been told to fear and hate the word. He wants to show people the power and positive message of liberalism.

And, for the most part, he was preaching to the choir.

Through the course of two hours and four cups of tea, Bragg performed roughly twenty tracks. I'll be honest when I say I don't really know all of the names, but I'm pretty sure I heard the following, "Shirley","A New England", "Levi Stubbs Tears","Waiting for the Great Leap Forward", "I Keep Faith", "Ain't Got No Home In The World", "Farm Boy", "O Freedom", "Ingrid Bergman", "Save The Country", "Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key", "Old Clash Fan Fight Song", "NPWA", "To Have and Have Not", and "Help Save The Youth of America".

Favorites of mine included "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward", "I Keep Faith", his cover of Laura Nyro's "Save The Country" and songs from the Mermaid Avenue collection of tunes written by Woody Guthrie but never recorded (which Bragg recorded with the band Wilco) including "Ingrid Bergman" and "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key".

Regarding politics, Bragg reminded the audience that the entire world not only was watching the American presidential election, but should be considered in the process as well. Even though the United States is the undisputed leader of the world, all nations will have to deal with the United States on many issues. As Bragg put it, Britain was exactly worried about the Canadian elections since Canada won't be dragging them into a war anytime soon. Of course, the entire world is hoping that Obama wins and Bragg is as well. He said that Obama basically opens the doors of possibilities for change to happen, but it's up to the people to keep on him (should he be elected) and make sure he holds his end of the bargain. Bragg himself apologized for helping to elect Tony Blair as Britain's Prime Minister after decades of Conservative rule. He was a big believer in Blair, but watched as power change him and lead to policies unforeseen by Blair's early supporters. He warned that the same thing could happen to Obama ? especially with the major problems that exist right now with the financial crisis.

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Change would take place, said Bragg, if Obama shuts down Guantanamo Bay within his first 100 days in office. That would be a signal to the world that America was truly changing.
He advised us to keep faith in the political process, to not be sucked into cynicism. "Faith is the antidote of cynicism," Bragg said.

Bragg also couldn't help but take a few shots at John McCain and Sarah Palin. He joked about the way McCain's facial expressions looked during the final debate by giving McCain the nickname, "Jack O' Lantern" and admitted he and his crew could no longer go to Cracker Barrel restaurants because he was afraid of waitresses that winked at them!

Billy played half the set with an electric guitar and half acoustically, moving through a set list of long-time fan favorite tunes, songs off his latest album, a couple from songwriters he admires like Laura Nyro, and several by Woody Guthrie from the Mermaid Avenue project.

It seemed as though the majority of people in the audience probably had political views along the same lines as Bragg; it certainly was not the type of show you'd want to go see if you were a Conservative as Bragg really loves to talk and mostly he talks about politics. One rather touching story was told during the encore when Bragg recalled his love of bands like the Four Tops and artists like Sam Cooke. He then spoke about Levi Stubbs (leader of the Four Tops) and followed with the song "Levi Stubbs Tears" as well as one by Levi himself.

Once again, the sound in the Pollak Theatre was terrific. This really is a hidden gem of a venue in Monmouth County. While the university likes to think that the venue is well known, I constantly find music fans who have never heard of it. If you fall into that category, do yourself a favor and check out the venue sometime. I've seen only a handful of shows there through the years, but the sound has always been very good. This year?s season doesn't have many shows for the mainstream music fan, but the calendar does include:

Richard Shindell & Glen Phillips
with Antje Duvekot

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ribbon of Highway Endless Skyway
A Tribute to the Spirit of Woody Guthrie

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Roger McGuinn & John Sebastian
Saturday, May 2, 2009

Opening for Bragg was The Watson Twins, a popular folk rock group who are probably best known for the hit, "How Am I To Be?" While I enjoy their album, I found their live show a bit too mellow. They seem like the type best enjoyed in short doses ? such as through their appearances on David Letterman or Tonight Show. They have some good songs, but not enough variety in their set to really keep interest of those seeing them for the first time.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.



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