Woody Guthrie, brilliant pop melodies and chats about fascism are still a healthy part of Billy Bragg’s stage show one year removed from the release of his acclaimed Guthrie project “Mermaid Avenue” in which he penned music for the folksinger’s unfinished works. There’s a bright disposition that favors romance over monologues at the front end of this 85-minute show that suggests Bragg has finally succeeded in evenhandedly dealing with one of pop’s most curious blends.
Not that Bragg has ever had a problem onstage. Since his arrival in 1985 as a leftist folk troubadour with his heart resting right above a union patch on his sleeve, he has always been a fascinating and pointed monologist capable of spinning delicious melodies and attacking society’s ills in a single turn. Monday’s show tapped Bragg’s catalog of 10 or so albums — for an artist so tied to era-specific lyrics (Reagan and Thatcher were always big faves), nothing comes out dated.
Bragg’s most dramatic speech preceded a rambunctious reading of Guthrie’s “Eisler on the Go,” in which Bragg detailed the House Unamerican Activities Committee gaining its Hollywood access first through Hanns Eisler. Bragg suggested that only illness kept the left-leaning Guthrie away from HUAC’s witness stand, depriving America of what was potentially some of “the greatest theater of the 1950s.”
The sweet Guthrie/Bragg ballad “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” stood out along with longtime favorites “Greetings to the New Brunette” (now dubbed “Shirley”), a group sing-along on “A New England” and the impressive “Sulk,” a B-side from 1992 that’s part of Rhino’s rarities compilation “Reaching to the Converted (Minding the Gaps)” that was released Tuesday.
Backup band featured exotic instrumentation that included two bouzoukis that, rather than conjure Russian dances, sparked the rock songs with a cross between mandolin and guitar. Ian McLagan of the Faces was, as expected, spectacular on the keyboards, particularly when they dove into his old band’s songbook for the eloquent “Glad and Sorry” from the pen of the late Ronnie Lane.
Bragg and his band perform Sept. 18 at New York’s Town Hall.