Saturday, 9 January 2016

A Gig of Two Halves and a Tale of Two Singers

A reminder of how things should be...
A matter of days after the experience of high security at Brixton Academy we simply stroll into Union Chapel, although there is an embarrassing moment when we pause, offering ourselves to be searched, and the people on the door just look at us! It somehow feels good to be entering a building on trust; a reminder of how things should be!

It also feels good to be heading into a wonderful venue with an old friend from back up north. We claim a space on a pew with our coats and head to the bar. After picking my mate up off the floor  - he has paid for a couple of drinks what we used to pay in our local for a round of 5 drinks - we find a space and catch up.

Like some modern day Rapunzel...
The last gig we went to together I went to hear the support band (British Sea Power) and he went to hear the headliners (Manic Street Preachers). Tonight is only slightly different. True, this time we are both here for the headline act (Billy Bragg) but although I am looking forward to seeing him again, I still can’t wait to hear the support, Duke Special.

He does not disappoint. Behind his keyboard on a table are old gramophones. As the lights dim a gentleman walks majestically on stage and, with white-gloved hands, places a disc on a turntable, carefully positioning the stylus and lowering it. Towards the end of the track Duke Special appears and standing behind his keyboard leans forward to play, like some modern day Rapunzel, with his dreadlocked-hair falling far below the instrument.

The support set is beautiful and theatrical. Discs and cylinders are changed and played as introductions and backing tracks. Yes, he could programme the same effects into a MacBook (ubiquitous at gigs nowadays) and achieve the same audio effect, but the theatre of the assistant and the live nature of the engagement between artist and recording lifts the performance. A performance, which ends with a fantastic rendition of Salvation Tambourine, and we are glad he has come to London!

Time for another round…

A fresh cup of Bovril - so rock ‘n’ roll...
We return to our seats just as Billy Bragg walks out and launches into ‘A Lover Sings’. For all Duke Special’s theatre, Bragg is the stripped back rebel with a chord. Both approaches suit the individual artists - neither could pull off what the other does. For this reason this is a gig of two halves and a tale of two singers but it works as a whole.

The exceptionally talented CJ Hillman, who adds finesse to the raw nature of Bragg’s songs, joins Bragg for part of the set. But this does not take away from the power of Bragg’s songs and his presence as the voice of the people’s protest. Neither does the sight of his guitar roadie boiling the kettle and brewing up and mixing a fresh cup of Bovril - so rock ‘n’ roll!

Five days ago Brittany Howard, of Alabama Shakes, had thanked the Brixton Academy for coming out and braving a gig. Bragg, by contrast, uses the recent events in Paris, firstly to promote the collection he is taking for the family of the ‘merch guy’ who was first to be killed at the Bataclan, and then to push home the point about what it is like to live in fear for your life and that of your family. ‘Imagine if what happened in Paris happened in London, imagine if it happened regularly, imagine if it was a daily occurrence – its no wonder those who experience such violence and bloodshed in Syria want to seek safety for their family.’ As ever Bragg shows the bigger picture to us.

We’re a bit late to the party...
In between the political commentary Bragg returns to cheap and easy jokes about playing in a Church. I have seen Bragg a few times before and one of the best of his concerts I have been to was at Greenbelt (a Christian Arts Festival) in 2003 - his encore rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ was one of the most moving musical moments I have experienced. So I find his throwaway humour about church and faith annoying. It’s not that I have a problem laughing at faith, but  in front of that audience at Greenbelt he had said: ‘I’ll work with anyone who wants a compassionate society – you guys have been working on that for 2000 years – we’re a bit late to the party’. It would have been good to hear the same sentiment in amongst the jokes at the Churches’ expense. I’m sure I am not the only one in the audience who has faith, both  in God and  in the protest of artists like Bragg, believing together we can change this flawed society.

As he returns for the encore a member of the crowd heckles – calling for
Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’ by asking whether is Jeremy Corbyn the Great Leap Forward? Without even a thoughtful pause Bragg explains that no one person is that Great Leap forward but rather all those who joined the Labour Party to be part of the movement, all of us who call for a different, fairer society. Leaders will come and go, he tells us, but if we continue to stand together then we are the Great Leap Forward.

It has been a fabulous evening of music with bits of theatre and comedy thrown in. It has been an evening of friendship and beer. It has been an evening that fires the spirit to believe once again that this world doesn’t have to be like it is.  It has been an evening to be reminded of how things should be!

Gig: 36 of 50
Date of Gig: Mon. 23rd November 2015

Union Chapel

Duke Special
Billy Bragg

Running total of artists seen 75

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