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Power In A Union: Billy Bragg Live In New York

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All photos by Geoff Tischman

Billy Bragg and I go way back, back to 1989 when a friend of mine introduced me to Workers Playtime, one of the all-time great breakup albums (“Valentine’s Day Is Over” or “Life with the Lions,” anyone?). From there it was back to “Back to Basics” and the songs that would become some of my permanent favorites, including “The Saturday Boy,” “A New England,” The Milkman of Human Kindness” and “St. Swithin’s Day.” Often described as a one-man Clash, I say we also give him credit for quite often being a one-man Smiths (but never a one-man Cure – that’s Robert Smith). 

I saw him on the “Mermaid Avenue” tour – with Ian McLagan – and loved the first Mermaid Avenue album, particularly “Ingrid Bergman” and “I Guess I Planted,” but for some reason toward the end of 1998, the year Mermaid Avenue was released, I spent most of that December playing “Talking with the Taxman about Poetry” again and again, particularly “Greetings to the New Brunette,” perhaps one of the most underrated singles of the 1980s? it’s astonishingly perfect and it was the background to a long-distance email romance that reached its zenith with a frosty kiss that Christmas in Times Square and, alas, nothing more. 

Bragg is currently touring his 2021 album, The Million Things That Didn’t Happen, as the original tour was a COVID casualty. With a keyboardist beside him and two guitars, he took the stage dressed in a spectrum of charcoals and grays and tore through five songs from his new album and a number of classics, including “Levi Stubbs’s Tears,” “Sexuality,” “The Great Leap Forward,” “The Milkman of Human Kindness”…his voice sounds almost exactly as it did when I first dropped my needle to “Workers Playtime.” 

Bragg played the legendary Town Hall, an old Times Square theater designed by the architects who designed the original Pennsylvania Station. I’ll share this from the Town Hall website:

“Town Hall has played an integral part in the electrifying cultural fabric of New York City for more than 100 years. Disclosing a tale of a vibrant group of suffragists (The League for Political Education) whose fight for the 19th Amendment led them to build a meeting space to educate people on the important issues of the day. The Hall was designed by renowned architects McKim, Mead & White to reflect the democratic principles of the League. Box seats were eliminated and no seats had an obstructed view giving birth to the term “Not a bad seat in the house.” During completion of the building the 19th Amendment was passed (women’s right to vote), and on January 12, 1921 The Town Hall opened its doors and took on a double meaning: as a symbol of the victory sought by its founders, and as a spark for a new, more optimistic climate.”

What better stage than this for Billy Bragg to sling on his electric guitar and convince us, with his sharp humor and impossible charm, that he’s the milkman of human kindness? He left an extra pint at the door for each of us.

Thank you, Sir.