Something of a die hard’s wet dream, the second in a triptych of performances by Billy Bragg is well under way. It’s the kind of performance Auckland’s Hollywood has been built for. Bragg is the vaudevillian crowd pleaser. A prestigious busker, presiding over his own amp rack, stabbing his axe through a wispy veil of dry ice. The minimal spotlights are on the packed crowd as much as him, as the floor rowdily sings along to picket anthems and folk tunes of love’s regrets.
In this middle show of the Auckland stint, Bragg is playing songs from his first 3 albums - 83’s Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy, 84’s Brewing up with Billy Bragg, and 86’s Talking to the Taxman about Poetry. In a way, he is his own support act - his first long player clocking in at a punking 15-ish minutes.
Bragg’s glottal stops are aural masseuses, and abundant during his frequent banter and meandering anecdotes. He talks of his lucky break, his long history with touring New Zealand and his relief that his uber-fan Frank is in the front row to mouth him the lyrics he’s forgotten.
This is a crowd that respect and love their man Billy Bragg. So much love is shown in the properness of the cheering after each song and mimicking Bragg’s east London consonants during the singalongs: “How can you lie vere and fink of En-ger-land” hollers the rabble during Greetings to the New Brunette.
Bragg’s cover versions pepper the album tracks, with Morrisey & Marr’s Jeane, and Smokey Robinson’s The Tracks of My Tears getting big noise from the stalls. But it’s lack of noise, just silent enamour, from the stalls during The Man in the Iron Mask and The Man He Killed that stand out - the latter’s lyrics by Thomas Hardy carrying as much profundity now as they did when they were penned in 1902.
Billy Bragg continues doing his self-proclaimed “silly-arse job” with such aplomb, that the normal curfew for a midweek gig whizzes by. Finale There is Power in the Union is followed by war-like floor stamping, bringing Bragg, the preacher delivering activist vespers, back for a 3-song encore.
There’s a mention of the late Roy Bailey who Bragg sung and activised with after they met at the Vancouver folk festival. Then a final rally to arms, as Bragg proclaims that “empathy plus activism is solidarity” as he launches into his re-working of Dylan’s The Times They are a Changin Back, which calls for a re-energising of hope and unity in the shadow of Trump.
As the ‘big-nosed bard from Barking’ leads a life-affirming run through A New England, the spirit and tradition of the travelling minstrel seems well and truly in tact. Most of the crowd will be back for night 3, and quite frankly, with such a rambunctiously entertaining and inspiring set, Billy Bragg should probably think about setting up a residency, because we could all do with the joyous feeling I left with, every night.