Review: Billy Bragg, Hollywood Cinema, November 21, Auckland

IMG_4220These days, it feels like there’s nothing more revolutionary than being sincere, than just being a man, alone, on stage with a guitar and a message. 

Folk singer from Essex Billy Bragg is back in New Zealand for a three-night run of shows at the grand old Hollywood Cinema in Avondale, and his first gig in the series was like a tonic in troubled times.

Being a protesting folk singer in 2018 may seem like a throwback. The old names like Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs are all gone and those that are left are getting up there in years. And it’s so, so hard for a protest singer to find that thin line between hectoring and speechifying, to not get stuck in rant mode eternally. But Bragg has ample humour and an immensely quick wit to carry him through the night. We need more voices like his.

His rallying cry at each show is a rejection of cynicism and a call for activism. Bragg is one thing a lot of musicians aren’t – utterly sincere on stage, clear-eyed without being naive. It’s inspiring and more than a little comforting to see someone unafraid to take a stand and who can sing a song like Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose” and make you believe every word of it. 

This first night of his run at the Hollywood, Bragg was in fine, upbeat form, playing for over two hours and loosely changing his set on a whim, at one point playing an amazing Leadbelly cover to demonstrate the skiffle sound (which, of course, he’s written a book about). He spoke nearly as much as he sang, on everything from Brexit to Stan Lee, but always engagingly.

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With immense control, he spun from a grim recounting and song about America’s history of lynchings to breezily playing a cover of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” from his busking days. What I’ve always liked about Bragg is his ability to switch gears between the hard-edged protest songs and open-hearted songs about love, or as he called it, “songs about rain and wanking.” Songs like “The Milkman of Human Kindness” or “Greetings to the New Brunette” are little gems of lyrical power and longing. 

And when several hundred people are lustily singing along and stamping their feet to “There Is Power In A Union,” for a moment, the world feels like it isn’t completely screwed in the long run. 

He capped things off with a biting and clever rewrite of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’ Changin’” for the Trump era, blasting at the grim tide with lyrics like “The land of the free and the home of the brave / Martin Luther King is spinning in his grave”. 

I don’t know about you, but these days I can get behind a protest song or three. 

Long live the revolution. 

Review: Peter Murphy/Bauhaus, October 20, Auckland

Sometimes, you just want to get dark. 

Peter Murphy and Bauhaus were progenitors of a lot of what’s called goth – black-clad attire, grimly themed lyrics and a thrumming dark atmosphere. Murphy passed through Auckland’s Powerstation Saturday night with his old Bauhaus bandmate David J to play a nearly sold-out crowd. 

They played the band’s epic first album, 1980’s “In The Flat Field,” in its entirety, and then a sprawling second set of Bauhaus numbers including what’s their best known number by far, the none-more-goth tune “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Fittingly, the show was on what would’ve been Bela’s 136th birthday. 

I’ve loved Murphy’s gloomy rock for years – his breakthrough solo album after Bauhaus broke up, 1989’s “Deep,” was in heavy, heavy rotation when I was a gloomy would-be-goth teenager. (Spoiler: I was never a very successful goth.) 

But I’ll tell you what – I feel a hell of a lot more goth at 40-something than I did at 19. You know more about life’s twists and turns by 46 and how dark it can get. So why not sometimes embrace the melancholy, lean into the comforting charms of the void? Why not listen to Bauhaus sing that “the passion of lovers is for de-a-a-a-ath”? And have fun doing it? 

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So to be in a crowd full of people dressed in black, some in outlandish makeup, and singing along with a chorus of “Undead / undead / undead!” – that felt like my tribe. Seen today, “In The Flat Field” looks like a fierce, uncompromising classic, and not-quite-Bauhaus performed the hell out of it, hitting high notes like “A God In An Alcove,” the creepy “The Spy In The Cab”, the frenzied “St. Vitus Dance.” 

It was a terrific show that Murphy is still in fine voice 38 years after Bauhaus’ debut album – his rich baritone contains caverns. Sure, he looks less like one of Anne Rice’s vampires than he once did, but he’s got a magnificent, strutting, slightly camp stage presence. 

For the encore, he pulled on a red scarf, looking more than a little bit like Bela Lugosi did as Dracula, and sang about poor dead Bela. It was dark, and it was wonderful, and as the show ended nobody wanted to go back into the light. 

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Pictures by me