It would be a disaster for most vocalists to lose their range due to illness but, as Billy Bragg gamely admits, most people don’t attend his gigs to hear him sing.
Sipping from a mug of herbal tea, with a packet of tissues to hand, the Bard of Barking launches into ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’. One of the Woody Guthrie lyrics that he set to music with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, it features the highly appropriate line “ain’t nobody that can sing like me”.
In truth, however, his voice has mellowed with age into a roughened oak that suits the Americana material on latest album Tooth & Nail. His updated version of “country music for people who like The Smiths” dominates the opening third of this two-and-a-half hour set, with the family politics of ‘Handyman Blues’ being marked by a gentle defiance, and ‘Chasing Rainbows’ being etched with the whiskey soaked sadness of CJ Hillman’s pedal steel.
The arrangements of these tracks may be mellower than when he broke onto the folk-punk scene 30-years ago but his political fire remains undimmed. ‘There Will Be A Reckoning’ is a gutsy anthem that gives full throttle to his four-piece backing band, standing its ground against old favourites such as ‘You Woke Up My Neighbourhood’, ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and a krautrock re-working of ‘A New England’.
Breaking the set into three broad sections - Americana, solo, and punk-rock - he manages to cover all phases of his career while acknowledging his limitations as a rhythm guitarist and soloist.
He also retains attention with the kind of between song banter that makes the gig part political lecture, part stand-up comedy. Talking about everything from cowboy shirts to his love of Lou Reed, his motivational belief in the power of collectivity reaches a pinnacle during the solo acoustic encore of ‘There Is Power In A Union’.
Performed in front of an audience-thrown Fire Brigades Union banner (‘We save lives not banks’), Bragg proves that while he can’t single handedly change the world he can effectively unite audiences against apathy.
Gig date: November 25