Billy Bragg at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall 10/11/22 -By: Steven Stock

Written by on October 14, 2022

It had been over thirty years since I last saw Billy Bragg, and I must confess to wondering before his performance at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall just how relevant the man and his music would be in 2022. Looking fit and trim, Bragg bounded onstage and ripped into 1984’s “A Lover Sings” on his Jim Dyson Tone Deluxe, a custom guitar based on the classic Fender Telecaster design.

Next up, happily enough, was “The Million Things That Never Happened,” the title track of his new LP, and any doubts about his relevance were rapidly dispelled, as Bragg ended up playing literally half of the songs from that gorgeous album, accompanied intermittently on keyboards and backing vocals by Jacob Stoney. In general Stoney was content to provide a melodic backdrop for Bragg’s enthusiastic riffing, although he was granted a brief solo mid-set on “Valentine’s Day Is Over.”

Part of what made it such a fun night was Bragg’s self-deprecating humor. He talked about Googling himself and lurking amongst his fans on Facebook, where he learned “the average Bragg fan would rather go to bed with a good book than with me.” Bragg switched to his sunburst Gibson ES-125 before launching into another new song, “Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained,” and its resonant semi-acoustic tones enhanced Bragg’s melodic sensibilities.

After a rousing version of “Sexuality,” a rueful Bragg had some wisdom to share with his audience. “We’re never gonna be hip again,” he said, “and we’re never gonna be pretty again. But there’s a chance we can be RELEVANT.” As if he were reading my mind! Which segued rather nicely into “Freedom Doesn’t Come For Free,” another new song which Bragg described as “somewhere between Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash.”  Inspired by the 2020 book A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear, “Freedom…” is a cautionary tale about a rules-free rural Utopia in Grafton, NH.

After a rather turgid “I Will Be Your Shield,” which even Bragg conceded sounded a bit like an Adele song, the main set ended with a great rendition of “The Milkman Of Human Kindness,” the obligatory audience sing-along “To Have And To Have Not” and finally a glorious version of “There Is Power In A Union.” The not-quite sold-out house demanded an encore, prompting Bragg to exult “you never know how a Monday or Tuesday (show) is gonna go, but if I didn’t know better I’d think it was Saturday night!”

Like the accomplished showman that he is, Bragg then evoked a wee bit of melancholy with an elegiac “Tank Park Salute,” before closing with a stomping take of “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward.” “Music can’t change the world,” Bragg had said earlier, “but you can!” And then he was off to Buffalo, planning to join Starbucks’ employees on a 1 p.m. picket line.

Alice Phoebe Lou, a 29-year-old singer-songwriter from South Africa by way of Berlin, opened with a brief but promising solo set. Her first few songs were lovely, delicately picked on an acoustic guitar, but also perhaps a bit meandering. However Lou won me over with a sprightly uptempo number called “Witches,” then switched to electric guitar and sealed the deal with “Dirty Mouth,” a song that rivals anything Liz Phair has done in the many years since Exile in Guyville. I would guess that Lou sounds even better with a full band, and we’ll have a chance to find out when she plays Webster Hall in New York City December 8th.

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