The Billy Bragg Rave: The Tale of 2 Old Guys
Last Friday night I went and saw Billy Bragg live in Vancouver and, wow, was it ever a great show!
But perhaps I should start at the beginning.
It was September 1985 in the very first class of English 101 (or whatever it was called) in the first week of classes in my first year at U-Vic. I'm sitting there waiting for the prof to arrive and the class to begin when in walks this guy who looks all around and then sits down right next to me. I say "Hey Hippy, how's it going?" to which he replies "Not bad Hippy". And from that day on we called each other "Hip". Why did I call him "Hippy" when he didn't look anything like a hippy? Who knows? I guess I thought it was witty or something. Anyhow, he chose that chair next to me, rather than any of the others available around the classroom; and, as they say, that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Back then we studied quite hard - Hip, or Todd, even went on to get his PhD and thus eventually became the renowned Dr. Hip - but, let no one misunderstand, we also partied quite hard back then too. A typical party in those days wouldn't end until the sun was up and a large number of us were at some pancake house downing large quantities of pancakes, waffles and/or French toast.
That was then...
Back in '88 when Todd and I, along with a number of other friends, went and saw Billy Bragg in Victoria it was the best - overall most entertaining - show I've ever seen. The guy was simply an extremely funny stand-up comedian, fantastic storyteller AND great rock 'n' roll performer all wrapped up in one. And, rather than preaching, he got his politics across in a pretty hilarious - yet sincere - way. What a perfect show! And I've been to a lot of concerts over the years.
I thought he might have become burnt out by now - after more than 20 years of touring - and I imagined that he had probably lost some of the passion for performing that he so obviously had back in '88. However, it was me and Dr. Hip, and definitely not Billy, who seem to have lost something over the past couple of decades, as evidenced by our consumption of just 2 pints of beer each over the course of the entire concert. Though we did go out for one more after the show, at 1 AM.
I arrived at the show that night, at the remodeled Commodore Ballroom, the great concert venue in downtown Vancouver, wearing the very same t-shirt that I bought at that Billy Bragg concert in Victoria back in '88; the same shirt Billy signed for me when he came out to the lobby of the concert hall and talked with all of us for 20-30 minutes after the show. Back then it fit perfectly.
I've saved that shirt in a box all these years, along with many other old concert shirts, and I pulled it out for the first time in more than 15 years just for this show. And therein lies the paradox. It was a great show, but I'm guessing that no one else, other than myself, could really have enjoyed it all that much since everyone must have been distracted by the non-muscular, non-well-built, non-pumped-up guy in the way-too-tight white t-shirt that no longer fit him all that well. "What's with that guy?", I'm sure I heard them say. But, then again, they could have been referring to the giant guy standing in front of us blocking everyone's view of Billy. Or they may have just been wondering why Dr. Hip was so sober and well-behaved.
It must be noted that Dr. Hip and I, back when we were teenagers, prepared for shows in the exact same way: by getting hammered. And, as we realized this past weekend while talking about old concerts we'd been to, we were even at some of the exact same shows well before we had ever met each other, such as Van Halen's "Diver Down" tour in 1982; a show in which David Lee Roth was, without a doubt, completely shitfaced. As were we, of course. But we weren't getting paid. Whether it was Queen or Rush or, later on, Dire Straits, Roger Waters, The Violent Femmes, U2, or Bob Dylan with Tom Petty... I was always flying high.
So, compared to those days, we may have become two somewhat-old guys, but the important thing is that Billy was as youthful and passionate as ever. He not only played with great enthusiasm as he belted out song after song, he also had us all laughing throughout the show, just like back in '88 - the man could have easily gone into a career as a stand-up comedian if the whole singing thing hadn't worked out for him. He was fantastic! Two whole hours up there by himself from 10:30 to 12:30, fully enthralling and entertaining the entire time, as he proudly drank a dozen cups of tea on stage, tea bag strings hanging over the side of the cup and everything. Forget the Jack Daniels - this wasn't a Van Halen show. And, hey, he is English, after all.
The highlight for me was when he told this long hilarious story about losing his voice on a recent tour and how, for a few days, he could only sing in a low baritone and how someone therefore nicknamed him "Johnny Clash". He then, after doing a dead-on impersonation of Johnny Cash, launched into a great song that perfectly imitated the sound of the first Clash album while lifting different lines from most of that classic album's various killer tracks, all the while telling a story of its own. Joe Strummer of The Clash, it should be noted, was Billy's musical inspiration. I also loved how he humorously updated/rewrote most of the words to "Waiting For The Great Leap Forward" and many of the words to "Sexuality" as well. The only negative thing about the whole show for me was how he didn't play "Help Save The Youth Of America", a song that is 100% relevant today and the song I was sure he was going to finish up the night with. He chose "A New England" instead, which was also a great choice, of course.
I should also mention that the opening act, Geoff Berner from Vancouver, was a pretty damn good performer himself. He had the whole place laughing and fully attentive to all his stories, jokes and songs. He had a great song called "That's What Keeps The Rent Down Baby" about living in a certain part of East Vancouver. And then there was his signiture tune "I'm a Lucky God-Damned Jew". This was no opening act to be ignored as you chatted over your beers.
Sorry if this was more of a review of The Two Old Guys than of the Billy Bragg show, but, hey, I've got to report what I see. And what I saw was a clear portrait of aging. No all-night drinking, no pancakes at dawn, and certainly no studly bodies in tight-fitting clothing. No, just 3 beers each and home to bed before 3 AM. But at least Billy hasn't lost anything.
Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Wednesday, October 4th, 2006
If you enjoyed that you should definitely check this out: Oh What A Night: Todd Snider Live (and John Rogers Fully Exposed)
And all you Billy Bragg fans would also agree with this I'm sure: A Perfect Billy Bragg Song: Even More Relevant Today