Joe Purdy opened with his guitar, harmonica and a cache of soft heartbreakers interspersed with bouts of dry humor and murder ballads.
In recent years Bragg has embraced the troubadour role, but these days he's part of a five-piece band. A post-punk Englishman playing in front of a pedal-steel guitar, Bragg celebrated the long back-and-forth musical heritage between the UK and US and its influence on his 30-year recording career.
Bragg's the epitome of an extrovert, filling his set with stories, articulate rants and jokes. Lots and lots of jokes to buffer the righteous anger that still comes through loud and clear. He opened with "Ideology," 1986's dig at corrupt British politicians, followed by music industry critique "No One Knows Anything Anymore" from his most recent album, "Tooth and Nail."
For almost 20 years, Bragg's given life to lost Woody Guthrie lyrics and toured in support of Guthrie's legacy. He doesn't stop just because he has a new album and an upcoming reissue. For Woody's "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" he shirks his original lilting folk arrangement for a bouncing country two-step beat peppered with pedal steel and two-part harmonies.
His quips about Americana ran strong all night. "I don't tune up in punk rock. I only tune up in Americana," he said while prepping for new track "Chasing Rainbows." With shades of Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" in the lyrics and melody, it fit among his Woody tribute, which took a punk turn in "All You Fascists." The country band was demolished with a pure frenzy celebrating the news that Mussolini-admiring football (the English kind) coach Paolo Di Canio had been fired earlier that day. Bragg introduced guitarist C.J. Hill's mid-song solo with the yelp, "This machine kills fascists!"
Just as quickly, Bragg brought the raucousness to a halt in introducing his new take on Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore," incensed that the song's subjects of poverty, foreclosure and lack of health care are still relevant 75 years later. After a fiery speech about health care, he turned quiet for the song, his voice deep and controlled. Behind him, the band played softly with short bursts of fury near the end to punctuate the song's key points.
Mid-set the band took a break and Bragg soloed on electric versions of "The Milkman of Human Kindness" and "To Have and Have Not," the opening tracks from his 1983 debut album. It seemed he might play the 17-minute album in its entirety by himself, as he's known to do. But he stopped after two songs to talk about his response to Margaret Thatcher's death earlier this year. Always a vocal opponent of Thatcher, he condemned how she's been lionized in death and launched into Joe Hill's "There is Power in a Union," greeted with cheers and tears from the union-heavy crowd.
When the band slipped back, Bragg returned to the British-Americana connection, paraphrasing his post on the Guardian's website on Friday where he argued the Brits invented Americana to introduce a blazing cover of "Dead Flowers" as an example. It's hard to argue with his evidence, especially when you're too busy wailing along with the band.
There was no winding down of the set. Instead, Bragg and the boys plowed through 1991's "Sexuality" and new song "There Will be a Reckoning" - an impassioned identity politics anthem in response to Holocaust deniers. He's still fighting, still vocalizing for those who might not have the means or ability to do it themselves, but not neglecting the personal. He ended with his classic lost-love lament "A New England." As he always does in concert, he performed the verse his late friend Kirsty MacColl added when she made his composition famous, an enduring sign of love and remembrance. Because what are we fighting for without love and remembrance?
The encore continued the personal tone. "Handyman Blues" discards masculine stereotypes in favor of expressing love in whatever way a man's best equipped to do so. Sweet and funny, it slid right into "Tank Park Salute," his always-devastating tribute to his deceased father. With the audience in quiet awe, he closed where he began: with a hopeful ode to progress, "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards."
Bragg's full circle overflowed with the personal and political, the angry and joyful, the weak and the powerful. This is what has always made Bragg unique - his ability to encompass the range of the human experience beyond love songs and protest songs into a collective experience that cuts through layers of argument and goes for the heart with just as much passion now as it did 30 years ago.
No One Knows Nothing Anymore
Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key
All You Fascists
I Ain't Got No Home in the World Anymore
You Woke Up My Neighborhood
The Milkman of Human Kindness
To Have and Have Not
There is Power in a Union
Dead Flowers (Rolling Stones cover)
There Will be a Reckoning
A New England
Tank Park Salute
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards