Nightclubs never seem to have bitter on tap. There was a decent bottle of Tribute in the fridge. I noticed they also had bottles of champagne. "Shouldn't think you'll be selling many of those tonight" I remarked.
A man sells me a CD of some local punk acts in the queue for two quid. (I haven't listened to it yet.) There's an airport style metal detector and we have to produce evidence of a lateral flow test. The Folk House this is not. I eschew my usual folk waistcoat and give my Team Corbyn t-shirt one last outing for old time's sake.
Doors open an hour before the music; I position myself center front in what the young people call the mosh. I am not generally a fan of standing gigs, but it certainly adds to the picket-line ambience of the evening. The people around me know the words of most of the songs, and enthusiastically sing the vowels when they don't. They respond with great joy to the great mans every quip and come-back, even though we could probably join in with those as well. ("It's all very well for you, you only have to remember the title. I have to remember the words, the tune, the chords..." "It's not the Tories or the Daily Mail who are the real enemy, it's our own cynicism...")
He opens the night by warning people of a nervous disposition that the words of some of the songs may have changed. "Billy Bragg" has been trending on Twitter all day. There had been an article in the New Statesman headed "If you want to reform this sleazy government start out by listening to Billy Bragg". Some stupid people were very angry that he was performing in a venue that required proof of Covid status ("what would the young Billy Bragg have said".) And there had been the inevitable, unpleasant backlash because he has given Sexuality a minor rewrite. (Folkies refresh their lyrics all the time, but apparently it is shocking if rock stars do it.) "Just because you're gay I won't turn you away" has changed into "Just because your "they" I won't turn you away." "If you stick around we can find some common ground" is now "If you stick around we can find the right pronouns." A young person today wouldn't understand why that old man was singing a song about having a gay friend, he comments: all the 80s homophobic tropes are now being applied to the trans community.
He's very aware of being BILLY BRAGG -- the eighties radical, the nineties pop star. The young Billy Bragg thought that everything was a balance between individual liberty and the common good; in time of pandemic, the common good is what matters. He praises the venue for its covid policy and mildly chides the audience for not being masked up. He has a gentle, post-lockdown song on the new album called I Will Be Your Shield". The 80s Billy Bragg, he says, would have written the same song, but it would have sounded more like this...and goes into the Milkman of Human Kindness.
He's still calling out Justice For The Ninety Six at the end of Never Buy The Sun. He invites everyone to join a demonstration for sacked workers at the Clarks shoe factory in Street before telling us that there is pow-er in a union. He eschews, surprisingly, New England and Between the Wars; but when he gets to the big crowd-pleasers like Milkman and To Have and Have Not he just sings the verses and lets the audience handle the chorus themselves.
He doesn't think music can change the world, any longer, but he thinks that standing in a theatre singing songs, making connections, feeling the audience reflect the emotion back at you is an act of communion. Music is all about empathy; people who talk about woke and virtue signalling and political correctness are rejecting empathy. If we come away from his gig with our empathy recharged, then maybe we'll collectively change the world.
He says that when he plays in theatres, he has an intermission in solidarity with the people who manufacture little wooden ice cream spoons. Tonight he comes on shortly after seven thirty and plays til quarter to ten without a break. He finishes with Waiting for the Great Leap Forward. My legs are knackered but my activism is fully recharged.