In a different life, Billy Bragg could have been a preacher.
It's mostly what the English folk-punk singer does anyway, though with a secular humanist bent that rejects cynicism and puts faith in the ability of individuals, working as a community, to change the world for better. It was a common theme in his solo performance Thursday night at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, and one that he made explicit toward the very end on “I Keep Faith,” a new song from his forthcoming album.
Bragg's idealistic like that.
He's also charismatic, funny and incisive, both in his songwriting and his storytelling, and the two held roughly equal sway during a 21-song concert. He related personal anecdotes, offered quick history lessons and dropped references to pop culture, while striking a similar balance between polemical songs and, as he put it, tunes “whinging about my love life.”
Right from the start, he cut an iconic figure on stage: One man in a spotlight, standing up against the establishment armed only with a guitar, a raffish Cockney accent and his conscience. Bragg's first few songs completed the image. He opened with “The World Turned Upside Down,” an account of peasant farmers rebelling against feudal landlords in 17th-century England. He shifted focus from historical to personal on the next number, “To Have and Have Not,” a bracing song of class consciousness.
From there he was off, leaning into the microphone, his unvarnished voice ringing through the theater and his right hand bashing furiously at the strings on his electric guitar. Along with classic material from his extensive catalog, Bragg debuted a handful of songs from “Mr. Love and Justice,” which is due early next year. He showed a measure of vocal nuance on the newer songs that contrasted with his more clamorous bellow on old tunes, including “Accident Waiting to Happen” and “Greetings to the New Brunette.”
He also talked at length about Woody Guthrie, illustrating his monologues with a handful of tunes from the “Mermaid Avenue” records, on which Bragg (and Wilco) added music to Guthrie's lyrics. Bragg played up Guthrie's use of smutty metaphor on “Ingrid Bergman” and sang in a wistful, quiet tone on “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.”
Bragg played a pair of encores, ending the show with the strident, lovelorn lament “A New England,” and letting the crowd belt out the chorus as he paced the stage.