After opening his concert Sunday at the Berklee Performance Center with “Ideology,” Billy Bragg told the audience that his voice was a little off because of a cold, then recounted how a manager once told him, “Bill, nobody comes to hear you sing.”
They come to hear Bragg find that populist intersection of the political and the personal, which he handily did during a two-hour performance at Berklee.
Sniffles be damned: Bragg has a sharp, country-seasoned touring band; a new album, “Tooth & Nail,” from which he played seven songs in the 20-song set; and plenty to say, commenting on universal health care (for it), modern fascism (against it), same-sex marriage (for it), and Morrissey (against it).
Though typically painted as a radical punk with a folkie approach, Bragg, 55, has always been more complex than that, a point made when he turned to such older love songs as “The Milkman of Human Kindness” and “You Woke Up My Neighbourhood” — the former sweet, the latter bitter.
“Tooth & Nail” is full of mellow, personal musings. But Bragg does not avoid sharper commentary. For instance, in concert he played “There Will Be a Reckoning,” a fierce-sounding song from the album that derides divisive politics. He wove a similar point into his tale of reacting to the recent death of Margaret Thatcher, whom Bragg called the UK’s most divisive prime minister of the last 100 years.
Bragg remains a Woody Guthrie apostle, adding Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” to both the “Tooth & Nail” record and his concert set list, where it functioned as vehicle for Bragg to stump for universal health care and declare that “socialism is organized compassion.” Bragg also performed selections from the “Mermaid Avenue” albums he made with Wilco, on which they set unrecorded Guthrie lyrics to fresh music. These concert choices ran from the rollicking “My Flying Saucer” to the pugilistic “All You Fascists.”
Bragg is more provocative than militant, opening himself up to criticism from the very people coming to see him perform. One heckler tried to shout over Bragg’s discussion of socialized health care. Another howled when Bragg mocked singer Morrissey.
Bragg defused those situations with an easy humor, and ably put across his message to let activism be the cure to cynicism.
Opener Kim Churchill used a barrage of effects to launch his journal-style folk songs into big, haunting settings.Scott McLennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.