Billy Bragg

It’s my second post about Billy Bragg.

The first was in 2008. I ‘used’ his photos to talk about a key election in Italy that saw all the parties of the left, the ones rooted and born from the antifascist resistance of the second World War, voted out of the parliament.

Two days ago it was Berlusconi’s turn to be voted out of the Italian senate. He cannot be a MP anymore because he’s convicted for a tax fraud. Many Italians see it as the end of 20 years period that ruined the country. I agree it ruined the country, I’m not sure it’s the end.

It’s not surprise Billy Bragg fits well with politics. Billy Bragg entire career has all been around activism.

I feel to small to write about his production.
I am not English, and I think Bragg should be protected by the National Trust.
I have been listening to his songs as hymns, something to singalong in the streets at demos.
I was a teenager living in Italy in the 80s. Far too young and too far away from Thatcher and workers’ strikes to get involved.
I was here when she died though. I did a quick photo report of a Standard Evening.

Here, I’ll tell you about the Billy Bragg show that opened his UK 2013 tour with his brand new band.

After few dates in Europe to road test the show, Bragg ensemble arrives to Cambridge to a sold-out Corn Exchange.
When I saw Billy Bragg in 2008 it was a solo show for an anti BNP event.

Tonight it’s his gig. His band. His songs. His tour.
He grew a full beard, which (he says) helps to contain the ageing, but also (I add) adds charm to a folk singer.

Billy Bragg his a folk singer not only because he is influenced by Woody Guthrie.
Billy Bragg is a folk singer, because he has been singing folk, popular and traditional songs for decades.
He is a folk singer, because he is away from stardom, he engages with his audience.

But Billy Bragg is English and younger than Pete Seeger. His folk has been injected with the adrenaline that came from the punk days he lived.

Folk and punk are neither distant philosophies nor distant music.
Both have simple song structures and harmonies.
They embodied similar expression of protest in different historical periods. They both are four letter words, both ending with a ‘k’.
There is another 4 letter word ending with a k to sit with them, perfect to encompass protest feelings, ain’t it?

Billy Bragg concert tonight is an all-seated. It is a pain to take photographs but he is in his 50s as most of the audience.
More, Cambridge middle class people is as posh as the city. With the exceptions of some dads that managed to convince their teenage sons to come along, it’s their gig.

There is less of the usual paraphernalia of leftist/anti-capitalist/anti Thatcher/Old tours T-Shirts. The vintage winner is a folk with a 1996 Bragg signed T-Shirt. My favourite is the “I Keep Faith” optimistic message on a more recent one. It made me reflect on the word ‘faith’ in this circumstance. I also reflected on the middle class.
The number of people here tonight who didn’t vote for the Labour must be high. The Champagne socialism generation of the ‘Blair’ years had a brilliant career in this elitist University Town.

Whatever it happened, the people who came to see Billy Bragg at the Corn Exchange are neither close to my working class idea nor to my North Cambridge neighbours; rather I image these as senior professors living in some village cottages lecturing about socialism and sustainability.

On stage there is a setlist which contains words as Fascist, Union, Ideology, Power and England.
Probably the last place left where all these words are together if we do not count the Oxford Dictionary.

Bragg plays mostly a couple of acoustic guitars leaving to the shiny red Rickenbacker of a side guitarist the electric parts.
The wonderful sound of a vintage electric telecaster (bought in some place in California, he tells a whole story about this guitar before he starts) arrives to play All You fascist bound to lose. That guitar, he was told, must be used only to play the important songs.

There is a story about Woody Guthrie and Wilco and Jeff Tweedy. He tells about Nora Guthrie project. She, the daughter of Woody, asked him to write (with Wilco) the music of some of Guthrie unheard lyrics.
She told him that only a European artist could face the task without being crushed by Guthrie shadow, which is why many Americans musicians declined the offer.
He played some of the songs from Mermaid Avenue, those Wilco and Bragg cooperation to compose music for unpublished Guthrie lyrics.

The hits are all there, towards the end, as it has to be. Some new songs, from his latest album Tooth and Nail, are here too.
Ilarious jokes entertain between songs. Billy Bragg is very engaging and the reason of going to listen to him live is also because on records you don’t get the tales and the funny stories about the songs, about the news of Thatcher’s death, about touring and how music reviewers get him wrong.

What you don’t get, if you go to see Billy Bragg in Cambridge is the audience empathy.
I was disappointed with the Corn Exchange people tonight.

Chatting with a stage security guy before the start, a Bragg’s fan, he asked me to snap the setlist to have a look. Looking at it he guessed that, despite this was an all seated gig, by the end all the audience will be standing, chanting, clapping, dancing.
Sadly, when the show closed with New England all he got is some people singing along, when he came back for the encore, Power to the Union was just another song.

Cambridge audience stay seated, limited its clapping and, irritatingly, many people kept going to the bar to buy another pint throughout the show.

It should be forbidden to get in and out of an all-seated theatre. To ask entire rows to stand from their seats to let someone go for a beer, comeback with his dripping glass pints asking everyone to stand up again. While the music is on.
If you cannot hold on a pint for a couple of hours man, you are an alcoholic and you need to seek help. Simple.

It goes without saying there was no dance not much other involvement. Just people singing the chorus of New England while sipping a beer.

I was here for the show, not for the public, and the gig was good, very good.
As it will be the one he’s about to playing at the sold-out Royal Festival Hall and, next year, at the Hammersmith Apollo.

Billy Bragg is indeed a British national treasure. He looks wiser and wiser, never gives up the fight and injects optimism and positive thinking with nice and entertaining speeches. He didn’t say anything about labels and spotify and streaming as he did to the Guardian recently. He close the show with a call to fight cynicism. I back him.
Spotify link to his music is below.

All you need to know about Billy Bragg is here: [website][facebook‎][twitter][Spotify]

Photo tip

It is 10 years I photograph concerts, which means it is ten years I ask for photopasses and I have literally thousands of “g-mails” archived on the topic.
Still I do not really understand who is (or how many are) the person behind an artist that deals with photopasses.

Any concert photographer knows that to get into a gig there are different places to start.
The artist, if is a friend or a rather small/local musician.
More chances of success come from the label, the press contact, the venue, the promoter. I also tried with managers, tour managers, booking agents and the generic from websites.
One thing is sure, PRs don’t do anything to be traceable. They hide so well even Google fails to be of any help. One of the most important thing in concert photography is to keep record of your contacts. They are key in the future.

I started chasing Billy Bragg photopass too late, my fault. Last time I photographed him was in 2008. Too much time passed to trust my old contact.

With not enough time, I wrote a couple of explorative e-mails. Luckily enough one of the two contacts was very helpful and in the space of few hours my search went from “no idea who’s dealing with this” to “I have got you a pass and two free tickets”.

“Valerio, this is fine.

Box Office: please hold a pair of house seats for Billy Bragg tonight for the name of Valerio Berdini.
Valerio – Please collect your tickets from our box office. Your photo pass will be provided by the promoter and will be available from the guest list at the venue door.”


Almost at the same time I got another e-mail from the other contact I wrote, this was much less attractive.
It said:

“Hello Valerio,

Unfortunately the show is completely full up and we have already exceed our guest and photo pass allocation.

I’m sorry we couldn’t be of more help this time.

Now, if I didn’t received the first message minutes before, this second answer would be an absolutely fine answer. It was my mistake to be late. Bragg was opening the UK tour in Cambridge, the first time he played in England with his new band, the concert was sold-out for a while. More intelligent photographers applied in advance to cover the gig. I have nothing to object against a full press list and photo allocations.

What is the issue?
Well, in that first message the venue didn’t have any problem to find complementary guestlist tickets on a sold out place (4 more empty seats in front of us) and had no problem to release me a(nother) photopass.

You know what?
I was the only photographer. Yes. No one in the venue had a camera bigger than their iPhone, but me.

The question.

Why someone who is supposed to work with an artist, to promote his image, to spread his music, to advertise his tour and his records to the press, wrote to me saying that photopass allocations have been exceeded when not a single photographer was allocated?

One of my photos has been published on the Daily Telegraph. Surely there would be another one available on a photo agency database, still what is the point to not give a photographer, willing to cover a show, access when no one was there?

“I loved the words you wrote to me
But that was bloody yesterday
I can’t survive on what you send
Every time you need a friend

I don’t want to change the world
I’m not looking for a new England…”

~ by Valerio on November 30, 2013.

One Response to “Billy Bragg”

  1. Seriously great blog. Written in personal but very interesting way. I haven’t been to this concert but just seeing your pictures I can imagine the amazing atmosphere. Well done! :)

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