TVD Live: Billy Bragg at The Birchmere, 9/19

“Welcome to the 7:30 Club!” Billy Bragg said, at the outset of his three-night residency at The Birchmere. He was both poking fun of the Alexandria club’s famously early nights, while name checking the DC area’s other famous club, the 9:30.

It was the first of several residencies he’ll also do in New York and Cambridge, MA before doing the same in various cities in the UK. Titled “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” he’s playing exclusively from his first three albums on one night, from his next three albums a second night, and doing kind of a career overview the third.

He began with the latter Thursday and seem freed to put in a set similar to those he had been doing in recent months, with a little bit of everything thrown in for his one-man, one-guitar format. The idea behind the residencies, he said, was to find a different way of touring that involved staying in one place longer than usual, an experiment that would mean a “low impact on the environment—and the artist.”

As such, he had been in the Nation’s Capital days before his run started, in part to do promotion of his new book, his sixth, The Three Dimensions of Freedom. Which he didn’t exactly read, but explained its point of view in such detail he might as well have.

The truth is, half a Billy Bragg concert is his speaking, and while he is charming, funny and sharp political commentator most of the time, there comes a point where fans would rather hear him singing choice selections from his songbook.

Though sometimes flustered about what to put in and take out for the night, he included a number of favorites, from the slashing sting of “Levi Stubb’s Tears” to the nostalgic pangs of “Welcome to the New Brunette” and “The Milkmen of Human Kindness”—the kind of songs he’s be sure to put in any of his performances.

He had the freedom on this night to do three selections from his Mermaid Avenue songwriting exercise putting music to lyrics left by Woody Guthrie—with “Ingrid Bergman,” “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” and “All You Fascists” back to back.

He also threw in the pointed commentary of “Why We Build the Wall,” from Anaïs Mitchell’s musical “Hadestown” (though it was written during the Bush years). There was a long story about meeting the queen when he put lyrics to Beethoven’s Ninth and some major topical rewrites for “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards” and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin.’”

But when he exhorted at one point mid-show, “Let me tell you what Brexit is!” you had to laugh. Of course he was going to go on about the disastrous crossroads in his home country, just as the old leftie was bound to end with “There is Power in a Union.”

That’s what people love about Billy Bragg, and the mid-Atlantic couldn’t help but be elevated a bit from him being around here the better part of a week instead of a single night, with his residency settling into ever-deeper cuts on subsequent nights.

King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood
Ingrid Bergman
Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key
All You Fascists
The Milkman of Human Kindness
Why We Build the Wall
No Power Without Accountability
Symphony No. 9, Opus 125 (Ode to Joy)
Handyman Blues
Greetings to the New Brunette
Levi Stubbs’ Tears
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
I Keep Faith
There is Power in a Union

The Times They are A-Changin’
A New England

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