Malcolm Bradbrook is inspired by a night of political rabble-rousing, tender songwriting and superlative musicianship when Billy Bragg came to town

Billy Bragg

O2 Academy Oxford

Friday, November 10

I expected fire and brimstone from this hardened campaigner in the light of a lurch to the right in international politics, but this sell-out gig was so much more.

The Bard of Barking we saw on Friday, November 10, isn’t a Billy Bragg cashing in on a political situation which has brought the longevity of his poetry into sharp focus. This is a current musician whose opinions and craft have matured with him.

Rather than rail against Thatcherism and capitalism, he extols the need to battle modern ills like cynicism and lethargy and pleads a conciliatory tone with those seen to have betrayed their roots.

Of course, classics like This Saturday Boy, World Turned Upside Down, and New England were given an airing but his recent work drew equal delight. One of his latest was Full English Brexit, which underlined his lyrical ability with verses such as:

“Yeah the sun shines, but sometimes, I don’t feel like this is my country. But to say so? Oh no, I never get no sympathy.”

This is the singer-songwriter who deserves his place in the pantheon of great artists and who, but for an Essex accent rather than a mid-Atlantic drawl, would surely be placed in the same as Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell et al.

He’s a polished performer and the dry humour interspersed with astute observation laced the atmosphere with warmth and appreciation.

He also updated some classic songs from the past to bring cultural references up to date with lines such as “the podcast presenter” rather than “the fanzine writer” in Waiting for The Great Leap Forward.

Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing came for the same treatment and even the most ardent Dylan fan must have been won over with lines like: “In the land of the free and the home of the brave, Martin Luther King is spinning in his grave to see a bigoted bully taking the stage, And he calls upon us to be faithful to the ideas he died for in another age, For the times they are a changing back.”

All-in-all, a top night with entertainment and though-provoking observation in equal measure. With politics across the world seemingly in turmoil for decades to come it’s hard to see his relevance fade any time soon.