Even though I may not totally agree with his politics, I’ve been a fan of Billy Bragg for many years. His songs are strong mix of punk, worker’s ballads, and the world at large that just have this certain appeal to me. Bragg played The Cedar a couple weeks ago and I took my friend Sherry to the show.
It was actually a pretty busy week: Association meeting on Tuesday, drinks with friends on Wednesday, Aimee Mann at the Zoo with Sherry on Thursday, Billy Bragg at The Cedar on Friday, then Stomp! at the Ordway on Saturday.
In the couple-dozen shows I’ve seen at The Cedar, this has been only the third where there were no chairs.
The first was Hoven Droven, a Celtic punk band at the Nordic Roots festival a couple years ago. The show started with chairs, but as the band got going people got up to dance. At first the chairs were (gently) shoved away from the stage, then quickly a bunch of people helped to stack them and put the chairs away properly. In under 5 minutes the floor was clear.
The second show was Konono No. 1, a percussion and thumb piano band from Africa. (Boy was that show loud!) They started the evening without the chairs so people could dance. The crowd really got hopping in sync with itself and you’d see this mass of heads bobbing into the air and back down again.
And then the Billy Bragg show. It was billed as limited seating, but I was surprised to find no chairs at all. I figured it meant the normal seating arrangement, but that there were more tickets than seats. I wouldn’t call Bragg’s music danceable – indeed, nobody really moved that much the entire show. However, the concert was sold out. With chairs The Cedar holds about 300 people but they must have sold 600+ tickets for this show. Standing room only in the truest sense.
The opening act was a guy named C. R. Avery. He did this beat-box, hip-hop, spoken word thing that was just great. I had to buy his two CDs after the show. If you’ve ever heard Kid Beyond before you’ve got the general idea, but with a bit more focus on the words than the beats and the looping.
Billy came out and it was just him and a couple guitars. One electric and one acoustic. He did several songs from the his latest album, Mr. Love and Justice, with a healthy dose of old stuff interspersed. I got to hear most of my favorites, including “Sexuality” and “The Space Race Is Over.” It was a really good show.
At one point, switching back from acoustic to electric, Bragg made a remark about amplification and apologized that I was getting the brunt of it standing there straight in front of his main stage amp. I just smiled, pointed to my ear plugs, and told him it was no sweat; I was getting a great show and couldn’t have picked a better spot about 6 feet off center right against the stage.
After the show he came out and signed autographs. He took the time to talk with everyone in line and come my turn he apologized again for the amplifier placement. I said he shouldn’t apologize, I knew what I was getting into by standing there. I have earplugs and could still hear every word, it just took the edge off. Sherry had helped me grab the set list from the stage, which he gladly signed and tried to point out the one or two spots where songs got added.
Then I asked him to autograph a couple CDs I had brought with me. As I handed them to him, I remarked that they were two of the old ones (not the oldest, but William Bloke and England, Half-English.) He started signing them, and asked “Who are they?” Confused, I looked and realized what had happened. He had written “To the Old Ones, “ and signed the first one.
Unable to make something up on the spot, I explained that I had said “Two of the old ones,” figuring he would just sign them and be done with it. Completely embarrassed, Billy remarked that after a show there is often no brain filtering information between ears and hands, so he’ll often just write whatever someone says because he’s talking with them at the same he signs stuff. “I’m just as likely to write ‘To the git that makes a terrible cup of coffee’ if someone said at the right time.” We all started riffing on “To the Old Ones” a bit, including my friend Kathy who was next in line, and eventually someone (I think it was Kathy) said “To the Young Ones.” The Young Ones was a British sit-com that played on MTV for a while here in the US. A bit more joking around and that’s what the second CD now says: “To the Young Ones, Billy Bragg.”
It was time to go, but I got a picture with Billy and he apologized again for the autograph mixup. I said it was no trouble at all. In fact it was great! Usually it’s just a signature, or “To Michael” at most – as if anyone would be fooled into thinking Billy and I were drinking buddies. These two CDs, “To the Old Ones” and “To the Young Ones” are now truly special. Not only do they have some good music on them, but I have a story to go with them.