Rams Head On Stage Show Review: Billy Bragg on April 22

by Matt Ellis

America has always been blessed with a plethora of great singer-songwriters and folk musicians, the tradition spurred on by responses to political and social unrest throughout our nation’s history.  We often forget about our English-speaking allies to the East and West and their contributions to the folk and political songwriting genres, but Billy Bragg and opener Kim Churchill reminded everyone in the audience on April 22nd why they deserve equal consideration with the best of the best.

By the time I walked in, Aussie songwriter protégé Kim Churchill had already finished his first song and the young, scruffy, blonde mop-topped singer spoke to the crowd quietly in a boyish tone, feet bare, and nearly resembling a child surrounded on stage by mass tangles of wires, instruments and amps.  Looks can be, and often are, deceiving.

The kid named Kim exploded into his second song, strumming his guitar so furiously I was astonished that he didn’t tear through every string.  His voice transformed into a raspy wail, and he screamed into the harmonica around his neck, using foot pedal sound effects and drums to distort the resulting resonance into an echoing chorus that filled the entire room to its bursting point.  And just as the swelling crescendo was at its peak, Churchill comfortably pulled back on the reigns, transitioning into beachy, acoustic melodies with complex guitar tuning, and the most impressive two-handed tapping I’ve seen since John Butler’s “Ocean.”

By the time he wrapped up his set, I had almost forgotten who the headliner was.  Silly me.

Billy Bragg is a Brit with a lot of spunk, and he’s not to be forgotten, even if he is relatively unknown to most people stateside. He’s been around since the 70s producing political and topical songs that are equally influenced by acts as different as Woody Guthrie and the Clash.  But there is a common theme in all his work: protest, progress, and perseverance.

Between songs, Bragg joked about the NRA, the Secret Service, who started the War of 1812 and what it was fought for, and reminisced about the late Margaret Thatcher and the good old days before Bob Dylan usurped the folk scene throne following Woody Guthrie’s death.  The crowd loved his witty commentary and you could tell many were strong supporters of Bragg’s philosophies and music.

They cheered as Bragg said, “Socialism is only worthy of the name if it is a form of organized compassion,” and they roared in laughter as he told them about his opportunity to shake the Queen of England’s hand. “As I walked towards her,” he said, “she gave me this look that said ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’” Diehard fans sang along to almost every song, and by the end of the night the room had begun to take on the feel of an authentic English pub scene – or maybe I was just drunk.

Either way, if you want to hear more of Bragg’s music, check out his website and listen to his latest compilation, called “Fight Songs.”

 

Matt Ellis graduated from the University of Maryland last year, where he majored in journalism with a minor in Geographic Information Systems.  He grew up in Western Howard County, Maryland and currently works in Edgewater, Md.  His father indoctrinated him on classic rock vinyl and old 80s cassette tapes, leading to a lifelong obsession with the music of that bygone era.  He has written for a number of different publications including National Geographic, Spinner.com, the Montgomery County Sentinel, and other local papers and websites.

For more great shows take a look at the full Rams Head On Stage Calendar!

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