FRIDAY night at Royce Hall saw an unlikely double bill, with British folk-punk hero Billy Bragg playing a full set mixing politics and pop before soul goddess Mavis Staples, who channels the spirit of the black church and the civil rights movement.
This incongruous pairing ended up being a blast, though the two may have more in common politically than musically. (Both artists have also, of, course, worked with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.)
It’s easy to love Billy Bragg’s early music — those rough songs from the ’80s belted out with a thick British accent and an electric guitar. For a while in the early ’90s it seemed like Bragg was going to ride the alt-rock boom into something like fame: He had a small hit with the jaunty “Sexuality,” co-written with Johnny Marr. But the music that’s come since the early ’90s with some exceptions like the Woody Guthrie records with Wilco, has seemed less urgent.
So it was a thrill to see Bragg set up solo on the Royce stage with just a stack of amps and Telecaster. His set leaned heavily on political songs, including a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “I Don’t Have a Home in This World Anymore,” and some new numbers that sounded good. His political rants in between songs were about as engaging and persuasive in their common sense and compassion. The recent U.S. elections clearly inspired him.
And his love songs — “Greetings to the New Brunette,” “Milkman of Human Kindness,” “A New England” — still sound great. I’d forgotten how great Bragg could be live. My wife lamented that she could not vote for this British citizen for president.
The highs of Mavis Staples — best know as part of the Staples Singers — were high indeed even if she was less consistent than Bragg. Alongside gospel — “Creep Along, Moses” — and soul numbers, with stirring vocal harmonies, she sang CCR’s “Wrote a Song For Everyone” and The Band’s “The Weight.”
At times in the set Staples seemed to get lost, and she’s some of her voice’s middle range sounded worn. But Staples gave off so much decency and positive energy it was hard to mind, and her band was spectacular.
A fuller review HERE by Steven Mirkin in the Orange Co Register.