It was definitely Billy Bragg's day, with a strong contender for performance of the year, not just of TGE. In comparison with the other stuff I saw, it's a bit like wondering how the rest got on when Mo Farah turned up for the dads' race at sports day...
It was probably the fifth or sixth time I've seen Billy over the last 25 years or so and the first that he's had a full band available throughout. We still got some solo and stripped-down numbers, but it was good to have the range, texture and oomph that his four collaborators brought to the show. A particular mention for CJ Hillman, swapping between a pedal steel and a Rickenbacker to great effect, but they were all excellent. (It must be a bit tricky playing country music as the 'other Chris Hillman', but CJ doesn't suffer by the comparison.)
And was it country music? Yes, sometimes. So what? Billy got to crack some gags about 'rocking the radical Kenny Rogers look' and tell some stories about pearl snap shirts, but in truth this very English songwriter sits solidly in a transatlantic tradition – as his entirely apt choice for the Mermaid Avenue project, setting previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics to new music, fully demonstrated. He played 'Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key' from that album, alongside Woody's 'I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore.'
On both, and throughout the set, Bragg has never been in better voice – deeper as he gets older, but smoother too and deployed with confidence and range. He still jokes, sipping his herbal tea at the end, that its magical properties make him believe he's singing in tune, but his strong and lived-in larynx is now a definite strength, as its foghorn side has faded somewhat over time.
That's not to say that there's any less fire or righteous anger on show, as diatribes against political cynicism and a powerful reading of 'Ideology' demonstrate. The set ranges freely across the decades and everything he choses – the overtly political and the more personal and emotional, from his current album way back to 'The Milkman Of Human Kindness' from 1983 – fits into a coherent and cohesive whole. Special mentions for a luminous 'Tank Park Salute' (I'm welling up again as I type this...) and a deftly tweaked 'Great Leap Forwards' (the uncle 'who once played for Red Star Belgrade' now says he has 'left your aunt and run off with the postman'), but I loved the whole show. There was the odd grumble on the way out that he hadn't played 'New England' - but, hey, think of what he did play and the strength of that 30 year back catalogue. (He had a nice riposte to shouted requests for more obscure numbers: 'Thank you, madam, but you only have to remember the title...') Thanks, Bill. Five stars.
And, in other news...
I'm kicking myself for getting to the Dome too late to catch more than the last couple of songs from Del Barber, a singer-songwriter from Winnipeg, who has a clear strong voice, accomplished guitar style and confident stage manner – which is not straightforward in a half-empty 2000 seat hall. I'll be looking out for more from him.
I only saw two songs from second support Sean McGowan too, but that was a choice. He has a strong, ranty voice, very reminiscent of a young Billy Bragg, but – for me – none of Bragg's focus or songwriting subtlety. It struck me as ranting to no purpose, I'm afraid.
The pick of the shows I caught earlier in the day was punk duo L'Hereu Escampa from Barcelona. Thunderous drumming and high energy attack, speeding up and slowing down to great effect. The shouted vocals – in Catalan, apparently, but it could have been anything – might get wearing after a while, but for half an hour this was a gripping set. (I think there must be something in the water in that part of Spain that turns out great drummers: L'Hereu are not quite in the same league, but came across rather like a stripped down version of Fergusson, one of my hits of TGE 2012.)
A mention in dispatches for Kinnie the Explorer, who coped well with a disappointingly thin audience at the Brighthelm Centre and built some nicely floating prog-tinged indie from intricate repetitive patterns. They lack a naturally strong vocalist, but there is a lot there to build on.
I was less keen on Alarm Bells, a young Scottish 5-piece, clearly determined to take the world by storm, and ready to deploy the kitchen sink in doing so. Their first number included dry ice, strobes, the singer whirling the mic around on its lead, the guitarist waving his unstrapped instrument about and some siren-like wailing. They built from there. The words 'unholy' and 'racket' came unbidden to my brain and I moved on.