Folk-punker Bragg promotes peace

Covers highlight impassioned show

There was a moment during British folk-punk troubadour Billy Bragg's Monday night encore at the Birchmere when all his previous informed political statements and insights into love culminated with belting "Hey! Hey! Hey!" from "Richard," track three on his 1984 debut album "Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy." It was a "take notice" appeal; a rousing yelp all the Bono pleas in the world couldn't match.

The night was a nascent call to consciousness - politically, socially and everything in between - and a warning against complacency. Bragg reached back through nearly 70 years of popular music to make his points by borrowing from Leadbelly's "The Bourgeois Blues" to form "The Bush War Blues," and added to his collection of pro-peace anthems with a freshly penned tune, which he tentatively titled "an old Clash fan fight song." In fact, a Clash reference popped up earlier in the night when Bragg termed his singing style "Johnny Clash" and himself "the man in black ... and red," in reference to his leftist leanings.

All this, coupled with anecdotes about his support of union struggles and an ode to murdered 23-year-old peace activist Rachel Corrie, showed that a man armed only with a clean-tone Telecaster and a tattered copy of Woody Guthrie's "Bound for Glory" can lecture with restraint and sincerity without sounding preachy or alarmist.

He never strayed too far into wistful yearning, even when recounting a recent midnight trek to Tower Records in midtown Manhattan where Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sang "With God on our Side" to him through earphones at the listening station.

"If there was ever a time we needed to sing and hear that song, it's now," Bragg said. He then adapted the melody to his own lyrics, because, after all, "talent borrows, but genius steals."

Bragg was genial and tangential during the two-hour set, the last of two sold-out nights at the venue. He quipped about taking his kids to see "King Kong," gushed about his brief mention in Dylan's autobiography, hawked his new box set and provided an excellent European history lesson on the pitfalls of King Charles I.

His voice, while warm, was tired and worn - the product of 70 gigs (by his count) at the recent South by Southwest music industry orgy in Austin, Texas. He smartly compensated by changing keys to suit his strained register.

Jill Sobule, who achieved brief fame for her 1995 MTV hit "I Kissed a Girl," opened with the night's first set. Quirky and amicable, Sobule hit on her final song - a duet with Bragg of David Bowie's "All the Young Dudes" - but missed with an ill-timed cover of Nelly's "Hot in Herre."

The burgeoning fan base of warbler James Blunt, who, like Bragg, is an ex-soldier in the Queen's army, would do well to invest in Bragg's early work instead. Or for a fuller, more accessible sound, check out the Mermaid Ave. set of unearthed Guthrie lyrics, which Bragg and alt-country rockers Wilco set to music.

Even the 8-year-old Alaskan boy in the front row experiencing his first concert saw the power of Bragg's minimalism. Who knows? He may grow up to continue the great lineage of Leadbelly, Hank Williams, Guthrie, Dylan, Bragg and all those who came before.

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