Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #1 Billy Bragg – Thursday, July 4th, 2012

(This year’s edition of Ottawa Bluesfest has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. In previous years, especially on my old blog, I would share photos and thoughts on some of the live music I was enjoying at the festival throughout the duration. So for the next week and a half, I thought I’d share ten great sets, out of the many I’ve witnessed over the years, one for each day on which music would have be performed. Enjoy.)

Billy Bragg live at Bluesfest, 2012

Artist: Billy Bragg
When: Thursday, July 4th, 2012
Where: Blacksheep Stage at 9:15pm
Context: Although I had been to multiple nights of the previous three festival years, 2012 was the first year I bought the full festival pass. On the opening night that year, I parked myself down at the Blacksheep stage for the duration. Though for that year, the Blacksheep stage was moved from its normal spot tucked behind the War Museum (where it was replaced with the short-lived Electro stage) and relocated to a spot not far away, actually, where the main merch tent is now placed. This stage location was one of the victims of stage reduction that took place not longer after to try to combat noise bleed between the stages (more on that in a bit).

I caught three very different but all very good acts that evening but the capper was Billy Bragg striding on to the stage shortly after 9:15pm, just him and his guitar. It was my third time seeing him live but it was the first time in over a decade and I had forgotten how integral his banter was to his live performances. His stories between the songs are almost as important to the Billy Bragg experience (and can be just as entertaining) as the songs themselves.

Tea in hand he cajoled and ranted on subjects like cynicism, government, the economy (if you know Billy, you know where he stands on these subjects) and the fact that he was being drowned at by the “disco” at the next stage where Tiesto was headlining. “You can wear mickey mouse ears all you want, it’s still disco,” he joked. “Come on, I’m fifty-f*cking-four years old!” Fifty-four he may have been, Billy Bragg rocked the set and he did it as he often does. Just him on stage. His set was mixed with songs from his Woody Guthrie repetoire (“Ingrid Bergman”), the classics (“Greetings to the new brunette”, “The milkman of human kindness” “Levi Stubbs’ tears”), and a smattering of new songs. Before one such new track, his anti-cynicism song “Tomorrow’s going to be a better day”, he forewarned of a whistling solo and cracked up when the crowd cheered him in the middle of it.

For his encore, Billy came out with a rendition of “Waiting for the great leap forwards” that had almost a completely re-written set of lyrics, adapted for current events, some of which seemed almost as if they were written that day, even on the spot. He finished his set with a singalong version of “A new England”, including an additional verse for his friend Kirsty MacColl, who famously covered the song in 1984 but died in a tragic boating accident in 2000. He provided the words to the chorus before he began but the crowd knew the words to the whole song and sang with him the whole way. Afterwards, he bowed humbly, threw his tea bag out into the crowd and that was it. Brilliant as usual.

Billy Bragg solo on guitar
Billy Bragg
Billy chatting with the crowd
Billy stopping for some tea

Setlist:
The World Turned Upside Down (Leon Rosselson cover)
To Have and to Have Not
Greetings to the New Brunette
Tomorrow’s Going to Be a Better Day
Help Save the Youth of America
Aginst th’ Law (Woody Guthrie cover)
Ingrid Bergman (Woody Guthrie cover)
All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose (Woody Guthrie cover)
Last Flight to Abu Dhabi
The Milkman of Human Kindness
Levi Stubbs’ Tears
There Is Power in a Union
Encore:
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
A New England

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