San Francisco Bathhouse
January 16 | Reviewed by Diane Spodarek

Billy Bragg can’t sing. Or so he said. His actual words from the stage, “I get by.”

Political songs, stage presence, two electric guitars, a capo and his motor mouth all came together for a very satisfying good time. Bragg likes to tell stories, many humorous and political. He’s called a political performer but his genial rants are about justice and if that’s Radical Left, then so be it. I didn’t mind his rants, mainly because I agreed with everything he said. Bragg, from the UK, is an old Clash fan and his punk roots were loud but clear as he segued from his hard core punk songs to more recent songs of love and loss in relationships and in society. His fans know all the words to every single song. My friend “A” and I seemed to be the only ones in the room who didn’t sing along. When Bragg lost his place in more than one song, the audience kept the lyrics going.

Bragg told the story of seeing the Clash for the first time, when he was a kid in London and how it changed his life. He asked the audience if they believed music could change the world. Bragg said yes because he was a bit of a slag until that night when he saw the light.

Bragg turned 50 last week and reminded the audience: keep the faith, or get the faith and get off your arse and make a difference. The packed audience’s ages were from those not old enough to buy a legal drink to those with hairless heads bald and shiny; he entertained them all. “A” and I stood very close to the stage. Great view except for the erratic jumping of the 50-something short man in front of us. He kept perfect time to what were apparently his favorite punk songs, doing the po-go in ecstasy, occasionally slamming into A.

There’s something endearing about a man with a guitar who can’t sing; Bragg even did a Bob Dylan song, about a minute of it; twenty seconds of the King; imitated Johnny Cash (“hello my name is Johnny Cash” as he played the standard three chord country sound) and unbelievably he covered an awful Carpenters song that was so bad it was fun.

One speech totally lost me, how the UK and New Zealand need a “written” constitution like the U.S. to protect our rights. I wanted to shout, “Yeah Billy, it’s working really good in the good old U S of A!” But, I behaved; I have to be a good ambassador since I’m a resident here, not a citizen. Towards the end of the set Bragg did a Bob Marley song, changing the words a bit, using us as a rehearsal, sort of a try out for his big day out gig in Auckland on January 18th.

I like to see people over fifty sing and play guitar. Although I can’t think of too many women who are doing solo acts with as much attention that Bragg has garnered. I know women who do it, men too, but most of them are in their living rooms. Hey, what are you waiting for? Bragg proves you don't have to know how to sing or even know more than 3 chords. You just have to believe in something and sing it from the heart.

Coincidentally as I write this Nightline on Channel 3 aired a live recording of The Police who performed tonight in Wellington. Sting can't sing either! Still looking good though in tight black jeans and t-shirt. In contrast, Bragg, who sipped from a ‘cup of tea’ during the show, wore a loose light brown t-shirt and brown pants (with a hole on the inside right leg, above the knee – I said I was close!) People can wear what they want but I saw a quiet dignity in Bragg’s choice of clothes that went well with his punk attitude compared to Sting who is still wearing the same tight clothes he wore 30 years ago. Reminds me of Madonna, they both want the world to know they have tight biceps. Uh, why?

Lyndon Puffin - The Opening Act.

Lyndon Puffin, solo singer/songwriter, opened for Billy Bragg. He got the crowd all revved up and ready. What’s up with musicians who check their instrument, tune their guitar and then start performing without introducing themselves? After three songs someone yelled from the back, “What’s your name mate?” He did a full set, originals and a few covers and mentioned a hundred times that his CD was for sale. He was a perfect opening for Bragg, full of energy, and a little self-deprecating chatter. Just the man, the guitar, the capo and a kazoo. The kazoo is something I can do without. And, Puffin can sing!

If Bragg had started a little earlier instead of waiting almost a full half hour after Lyndon Puffin left the stage, I might have arrived home at a decent hour and got some sleep last night. As “A” and I left the bar, I was complaining how much my feet hurt from standing in high heels for four hours. We arrived at the car park at one minute to midnight. It was locked and there was A’s car behind the huge metal gate. We managed to get inside the park, along with a few other couples and tried to put our heads together on how to get out. The sign said: “7 Days a Week. Close at Midnight.” We rattled the gate, pulled on a few chains, turned an on/off switch near the ceiling on and off and made phone calls. The police, a tow company and representatives of the car park in Auckland said they would come. No one did. One company offered to free us for $35 per car. We were willing but sometime into the night we discovered a sensor and the gate opened like magic. We made our getaway.