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Music review

Things are looking down, so Billy Bragg steps up

At the Somerville Theatre, Billy Bragg delivered songs and commentary on Joe the plumber, bankers, the World Series, and other hot topics. At the Somerville Theatre, Billy Bragg delivered songs and commentary on Joe the plumber, bankers, the World Series, and other hot topics. (JOHN BOHN/GLOBE STAFF)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / October 25, 2008
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SOMERVILLE - It's a good time to be a Billy Bragg fan. With the economy crumbling, an election looming, and an unpopular war dragging on, protest and love songs benefit from a sense of urgency that invariably ebbs and flows with the historical tides.

As usual, a good third of each evening during Bragg's two-night Somerville Theatre stand was devoted to the troubadour's hyper-politicized version of spoken-word performance. A Bragg show is a mash of left-wing social commentary, dry humor, and sermonizing that on Wednesday included (but was by no means limited to) Joe the plumber, corrupt bankers, the Clash, the World Series, and the end of "American exceptionalism."

The last, Bragg gleefully explained, means that the United States will be forced to join the rest of the world in its definition of red and blue, football, and health care.

The music was just as pointed. Loud cheers for "Farm Boy" and "Sing Their Souls Back Home," a pair of compassionate wartime meditations from this year's disc "Mr. Love & Justice," came from the mezzanine, where members of Iraq Veterans Against the War were seated. And if those songs didn't pack the edge and energy of some of Bragg's signature folk-punk tunage, they were worthy set pieces in the troubadour's thoughtful, provocative program.

"Woody Guthrie wrote this 75 years ago, but it sounds like he wrote it next week," Bragg said before playing "I Ain't Got No Home." Throughout the two-hour set, speechifying segued smartly into songs. Ever upbeat and never bitter, Bragg's lengthy and hopeful invocation concerning the presidential election led into a tender, crusty cover of Laura Nyro's 1968 anthem "Save the Country." "Cynicism is the enemy!" he proclaimed in introduction to "I Keep Faith."

As the evening wore on, the show felt less like a performance and more like a rally, or a revival, or a combination of the two. Bragg started calling us brothers and sisters. One audience member stopped clapping after songs and began raising his fist in solidarity. Even Bragg's more personal songs, like "M For Me," "Brickbat," and the show-closing singalong "A New England," transcended tender sentiments to feel positively galvanizing. That's what wit, heart, and conviction deliver, and it's hard to imagine a more timely moment for all three.

The Watson Twins, best known for their powerfully ethereal vocal work on Jenny Lewis's CD "Rabbit Fur Coat," proved less gripping as frontwomen during a sleepy opening set of country-folk.

MUSIC REVIEW

BILLY BRAGG With the Watson Twins

At: the Somerville Theatre, Wednesday

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