Solidarity, empathy and activism were the watchwords at the O2 on Friday night: hardly surprising for a Billy Bragg gig, but nonetheless affecting for it. Offering his well-honed political commentary and touching observations of what makes us human, Bragg lifted the crowd in the best way he believes music can.
The set was fantastic, including a mixture of old favourites as well as the majority of his new EP, Bridges Not Walls. The tenderness and honesty of 'Must I Paint You a Picture' and 'Full English Brexit' were especially beautiful, while the tweaked lyrics of 'Accident Waiting to Happen' brought particularly raucous cheers of laughter and recognition.
For a solo artist to hold the attention of the crowd for a full two-hour set is no mean feat. But Bragg is an old hand and he and his beautiful guitars (including his famous Burns Steer) guided us through the importance of listening, the power in a union and, remembering that humour is more effective than hubris, that the revolution is only an ethically-sourced tea-towel away – helpfully available at the merch stand.
(Speaking of which, next to the merch stand Bragg had also made space for a ‘Safe Gigs for Women’ stall, which has been with Bragg at festivals over the summer and will accompany his current tour. An important cause – look them up @safegigs4women)
Of course Bragg is known as much for his between-song commentary as he is for his songs. And as song and speech powered forward, lambasting Trump, praising those who smile in the face of fascism and ringing the warning bells of climate change, Bragg built towards what was perhaps his most touching argument: the power of music.
Having been in the game for 35 years, Bragg knows music can’t change a thing. The fact that so many of the songs he wrote 20 years ago or more are still relevant is testament enough to that, not to mention (as Bragg did) the continuing resonance of his hero, Woody Guthrie’s songs 50 or 60 years on. But that’s ok, because, as Bragg said, music isn’t supposed to effect change.
Instead, the power of music lies in its capacity to impart an idea and energise activism in the people who listen to it. The power lay, on Friday night, not with Bragg, but with his audience. And thanks to him and his tremendous set, we left energised, entertained and reminded that we are, as we always were, empowered.