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LIVE REPORT: Billy Bragg
Julian Marszalek , February 28th, 2013 13:00

Julian Marszalek sees an intimate gig by Billy Bragg at London's Lexington

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"'ere, mate," says Billy Bragg, pointing at the pint of beer that a fan has left on the lip of the stage. "I wouldn't leave that there if I was you. I've got a hell of cold and believe me, if I cough up a load of phlegm into it you'll get fuck all on eBay for it!"

It's a miserable late February night in North London and not even the Bard of Barking, or, as his new tour shirt has it, the Sherpa of Heartbreak, is immune from the Panzer division of lurgee that's cutting mercilessly through the capital. But while Bragg himself is suffering its vile effects, his music remains in rude health.

Standing in the Lexington 30 years after the release of his first album, Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy, it's impossible to shake the feeling of not only a sense of déjà-vu but also that things have come full circle for us and Billy Bragg. The country is under attack from the savage austerity measures brought on by the Tory-led coalition as Bragg once more casts his compassionate and humane eye over the devastating effects of right wing politics. Though new album Tooth And Nail eschews the more overt political diatribes for which he's best known, the humanity that beats at its heart displays an artist concerned with the positive aspects of human interaction in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. And why not? Because let's face it – if we haven't got we each other than what have we got?

Augmented by a new band – C.J. Hillman on guitar and slide, bassist Matt Round, drummer Luke Bullen and, following a broken leg, a newly-walking Owen Parker on keyboards – Bragg kicks off with dependable war horse 'Ideology'. Based on the chords of Bob Dylan's 'Chimes Of Freedom', the song takes on a new life backed with additional musicians as it evokes The Byrds' take on the Zimm's original. Speaking to The Quietus after the gig, Bragg laughs as he confirms that The Byrds did indeed provide the template for the new version: "I said to the band at the first rehearsal, has anyone got The Byrds' 'Chimes Of Freedom' on their iPod?"

Though making frequent forays into his past – buoyant readings of 'Sexuality' and 'Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards' are welcomed with enthusiasm and open arms – the evening is about Tooth And Nail. Shot through with a sense of melancholy longing – how could it not me after the sudden death of his mother – 'Goodbye, Goodbye' tears at the heartstrings while 'Do Unto Others' repositions Christianity as a socialist ideology. Drawing deeply from the well of country music, the beguiling 'Chasing Rainbows' is probably the finest song that Hank Williams never wrote.

Not that the new material rests solely on personal interaction. 'There Will Be A Reckoning' is a damning piece of music that aims its ire at those only too happy to pull the ladder up after them once the shitstorm has hit. As ever, Bragg is the consummate performer and one that knows how to direct the mood of his audience. His skills as a wit and raconteur are still firmly in place. Introducing 'No One Knows Nothing Anymore' to howls of laughter, Bragg quips, "The first thing they teach you in songwriter school is that alliteration trumps grammar." Elsewhere, Bragg counters the criticism of his meeting with the Queen by joking, "Loads of people wait for me after gigs to shake my hand so why not her?"

As evidenced by tonight's warm-hearted gig, Billy Bragg is a much loved and much needed institution. Without resorting to hectoring or empty sloganeering, this is a defiantly human performance from an artist who, in addition to sharing our hopes, fears and dreams, articulates them beautifully through his art.