Billy Bragg and The Blokes

 

Billy Bragg's music has always been a hit-and-miss affair: ragged electric guitar, brash vocals, and lyrics that swing from subtle wit to crass polemic. His virtues and failings were all in evidence last night at Vicar St, in a concert featuring his own songs along with settings of Woodie Guthrie lyrics (the Guthrie material drawn from Bragg's album Mermaid Avenue).

At times, Bragg seemed defiantly unmusical, appealing only to devotees - his opening solo set was an endurance test. He was joined by The Blokes for most of the evening: an excellent, polished group featuring Ian McLagan (ex-Small Faces) on organ, and also Ben Mandelson and Lu Edmonds playing all manner of fretted instruments.

Some of the arrangements worked well, though at times songs were extended too much and Bragg sometimes seemed out of place. Guthrie's Eysler On The Go was excellent, given a dark, moody arrangement. The Milkman of Human Kindness got the full-band treatment and was impressive, as was the as-yet-unreleased Guthrie song My Flying Saucer (in a blistering rockabilly arrangement).

Another Guthrie song, All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose, managed to embody all that is crass and awful about political folk music (Bragg even preceded it with a lengthy speech deploring fascism - now there's a controversial stand). He held his most perfect song back until the end of the evening. Bragg has never written anything better than A New England, and the slow tempo, full-band arrangement did it justice.