Billy Bragg And The Blokes : London Barbican Centre

Inevitably, it seems a bit like a Socialist Worker's conference...

Billy Bragg may be casting his net further afield as far as politics go (more – much more – of that later), but as he and his Blokes launch into ‘Milkman Of Human Kindness’, everything seems right with the world. Here’s a 17-year-old song, sounding as fresh as ever. ‘She Came Along To Me’ is next, from 1998’s ‘Mermaid Avenue’, on which Woody Guthrie posthumously provided lyrics, and Wilco recorded the very-much-alive backing. The Blokes’ emulate Wilco’s expertise admirably, and thunderous applause gives way to the third song, another recharged classic, ‘The Price I Pay’. Wilco, it seems, have inspired Billy Bragg And The Blokes to give some old favourites a new edge.

Bragg’s still got axes to grind, though, lashing out at Euro-sceptics, as he wonders why the British fought in World War Two if they didn’t want to be a part of Europe. Inevitably, it seems a bit like a Socialist Worker’s conference – but no one’s complaining, the audience are just as interested in Billy’s views as they are his songs, and are behind him all the way, ‘All You Fascists’ providing a particularly potent coda to one of Bragg’s rants.

It’s easy to see why he’s gained so much respect: his triumphs are many, and failures, few and far between. Although the new samba direction he takes on ‘Sexuality’ almost scuppers a clean sheet. There’s a fine line between being brave and being foolish – but when you’ve got an original guitar riff by Johnny Marr, it’s pretty safe to say which you are being when you change it. The heart is completely ripped from the song, and although the audience clearly want to ‘get down’, no one can quite get their heads round it.

Just as a great gig seems ruined by a fudged finale, the rotund frame of comedian Phil Jupitus bounds on. The song starts again, this time with Phil’s lyrics, the chorus now changed to “Bestiality”. Although we seem to be moving further and further from the heart of the song, at least now we’re smiling – and Bragg just about gets away with his faux pas, by Jupitus!

Tom Stone