Aside from straining a look into a packed ‘Left Field’ tent at Glastonbury in 2010, I wasn’t previously too knowledgeable when it came to Billy Bragg, though I’d liked the glimpses I’d caught between the sun-kissed heads and straw hats that swamped his stage that summer. What really drew me to tonight’s gig though was the excellent support line-up of ‘Sound of Rum’ and ‘Akala’, who I knew would offer a solid left-right musical combo, with Billy Bragg potentially landng the knockout punch to round off the night.
I’d also seen that ‘The King Blues’ had been a part of some earlier dates of this ‘Left Field’ tour; having seen them rock Bristol earlier this year, it was a shame that they couldn’t have returned for a Round 2, but their inclusion completed a line-up of support that showed Billy Bragg was dedicated to promoting some of the most cutting-edge, conscious young musicians of the moment. The Fleece had the potential for a brilliant, and indeed engaging, evening.
First to the stage were Sound of Rum, whose unusual sound-scapes I’ve enjoyed live before, where I was blown away in particular by their fiery figurehead, vocalist Kate Tempest, who punctuates their music with a deep passion that demands the attention of anyone within earshot. Warmly introducing the band to a Bristol audience she’d apparently been eager to re-unite with, her endearing honesty made the room smile as she tried to avoid any cliché’s, self-importance or bravado, “It’s so hard to say hello without sounding like a w*nker”, she joked.
A relaxed atmosphere now set, Sound of Rum began stamping their mark and from their first beat, Bristol live-music regular Big Jeff was banging his head at the very front of the crowd with a ferocity that made me fear for the safety of his own neck. Weaving their songs with an open and entertaining dialogue with the crowd, it seemed more like The Fleece had welcomed old friends to their living room, rather than a band to their stage. Whilst they created a big, interesting sound for a trio, my highlight was the dip into spoken-word territory, in which Kate Tempest’s ‘Bubble Muzzle’ piece silenced the room, hammering us with an electrifying resonance. Now the third time I’d seen such performances live in just under a year, the contemplative content and blazing delivery are still far from growing tired on me.
Stepping things up into a louder, more interactive crescendo, a hypnotically-fast gear was reached lyrically, transforming Kate’s flow, whilst crazy drumbeats and cool multi-instrumental input were delivered by her band-mates. Energy was raised, speakers were climbed, chants started and ‘I Say, You Say’ responses bounced between the stage and the audience; Sound of Rum delivered, both in the quieter moments and the loud.
Next up after a short break, UK lyricist Akala bounced onto the stage with purpose and launched into his set confidently with more ‘call and response’ with the crowd. Whilst Sound of Rum had certainly warmed up the venue, it seemed written into the subtext that Akala wasn’t going to accept anything less than full attention and big energy; his investment in the crowd was high as he moved energetically about the stage, leaping onto monitors and leaning his Mic out into the crowd to fire up Bristol’s vocal chords.
His material wasn’t entirely new to me, as I’d actually seen him support Nas and Damian Marley last summer, but having since seen his brilliant ‘F64’ and ‘Fire in the Booth’ appearances, I was keen to see him on stage again and check out his progression with a more observant eye. More so than I remember the last time I saw him, he owned the stage, and without the adolescent bravado typical of many other rappers. That he wasn’t true to the negative ‘rap stereotype' must’ve transpired quickly to the audience; verses were packed with intelligent undercurrents, Shakespearean references, nods to the Middle East and interestingly introspective lyrics.
Not quite gigging solo, Akala was backed on-stage by his drummer friend, who smashed rhythms over beats that appeared to be driven from a MacBook; the sound was surprisingly broad, mixing the smooth production of the polished digital backing tracks with the raw energy and rough edges of the live drums and vocals. Speakers were loaded at ground level as well as hung from the low, imposing roof, packing a solid punch across the room and pounding out ridiculous bass that lifted my hoody from my arms with every kick from the drums.
Sporting a flow that rolled and switched between tempos, Akala’s tracks captured my attention and held it; often as soon as I’d relaxed into one rhyming structure I was launched headfirst into another, which kept me and the rest of the room alert and entertained. Casual wordplay would quickly give way to rapid-fire delivery and back again smoothly, with some tempo-blips even formally introduced in one interlude as a ‘sprint’, a showcase of “lyrical dexterity”, which stepped up the speed once more to intense and sustained levels.
Having already delivered such novel experiences to the crowd, Akala crammed a few more in before relinquishing the stage; he generated a round of applause for the house staff (perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen this happen), managed to get dozens of lighters and phones swaying in the air and finally even crammed in a lesson in ‘bouncing’, which proved entertaining for all, even those who hesitantly embraced it under a faux-ironic shield. Lunging rhythmically, the bouncing room was hit by the booming remix of Tomcraft’s ‘Loneliness’; a heavy sound and a cool moment too.
Finishing on an interestingly honest reflection in ‘Find No Enemy’, a darker sounding but illuminatingly introspective vibe was offered; bravado was once again eschewed in favour of his own personal truth, “True strength is the strength to be honest”. This rounded off an impressive set, and the second of two acts that can confidently rock a room and hold a great deal more promise for future growth too.
The last musical pugilist on the evening’s fightcard was heavyweight Billy Bragg, who drew the night’s largest crowd by far, taking to the stage to enthused applause from a venue now truly packed with a diverse audience. Studded leather jackets, pierced faces, dreadlocks, died hair and all manner of unique styles made me feel a little low-key in comparison, but not uncomfortable. The amassed were pleased to hear that Bragg was not just armed with his music, but that he would have plenty of “political diatribe” to boot. This was not an understatement.
Delivering his songs in a softened Essex accent with an easygoing, ‘half-spoken, half-sung’ style, the disarming simplicity of his lyrics and performance heightened his modest, ‘everyman’ resonance; the divide between the stage and the crowd felt unusually small, as if you were watching a talented mate, rather than basking in the superficial glow of a pretentious ‘star’.
Having previously known to expect some politics, and indeed taking note of Billy’s heads-up at the start of his set, it wasn’t long before the music (often weighty in its own right) succumbed to some interesting and passionate, politically-charged interludes. Reference was made to the ‘Occupy’ movements, public-sector strikes and their manifestations both locally and further afield, including the recent occurrences in New York. The more Bragg spoke about politics, the more opportunity I had to judge his words and tone, which I felt particularly inclined to do before joining the enthusiastic, perhaps thirstily compliant cheers. Normally I’m hesitant to validate the fleeting and disposable moments when a musician draws the political card, though tonight was quite different; it almost felt like between his spirited and seemingly well-researched politics, Bragg occasionally touched on some music!
Tallying with what I saw at Glastonbury and the conscious nature of the Left Field in Motion support, I knew that Billy Bragg essentially represented a category of his own with regards to the music/political split, with subsequent dips into YouTube videos and online materials confirming just how passionate and active a participant he is politically. I was pleased to find his words were often rousing, thought-provoking and intelligently reflective. I was also pleased to see that he remained measured and reasoned when critical, avoiding the type of emotionally-driven zeal that can undermine a valid argument when scrutinised by calm, rational opposition. That said, he wasn’t short on humour either, even managing to throw a few jokes into the mix too, “Can you put a bit more irony on that whistle?” he asked of the sound desk, between chirps.
Carefully keeping the evening buoyant despite some serious subjects, further laughs were shared, one with a knowing reference to “C-90’s”, which got a great response from the mature majority of the crowd whilst perhaps bemusing the few raised exclusively amongst the iPod generation.
On stage, Billy was just a man and his guitar, refreshingly unreliant on any of the crazy lighting, special FX, video screens or flashy showmanship that is par for the course nowadays. As a testament to his presence on stage, those absences left little void, as he showed he could conjure up enough ideas, enthusiasm and imagery armed only with chords and a microphone.
That said, as a newcomer I found that towards the end of the evening some songs had unfortunately blurred into a mesh of similar sound and sentiment, though punctuated by exceptions, and notably so by the often fascinating interludes. One definite musical exception to the blur was Billy’s recently penned, ‘Scousers Never Buy The Sun’, which I felt more topical, more resonant and more loaded with impact. Brilliantly melancholy, it rang around the room powerfully and has continued to echo loudly in my memory since.
Unfortunately though, and entirely beyond the control of those on stage, I found it hard to shake my annoyance with a few people in the audience who seemed to have taken the talk of ‘empowerment’ a little too liberally. Seemingly eager to ‘fight for their rights’, even within what could have proved a brilliantly united crowd, a few took it upon themselves to snap rudely at anyone who dared stray in front of their view, or look at them the wrong way, even if entirely innocent. This left myself and a few others around with a sour taste in the mouth and a residual hesitancy for any remotely zealous-sounding cheers; I could only hope they were cheers of people who would embrace the measure and maturity demonstrated on stage, not the negative ‘empowerment’ petulantly dished out by a few in the crowd.
Fortunately, such happenings were massively outweighed by positive moments and good music. Wrapping up his performance, Billy was joined by Sound of Rum and Akala for a brief but welcome collaboration to close the night, the room rocking one last time with the uplifting chorus of, “We are the 99%”. Stood united, arm-in-arm on stage, they shared a binding ethos and energy, regardless of their contrasting styles and deliveries. Perhaps what we saw as they closed the night, and indeed the current tour, will prove to be a torch-passing of some sort, or at the very least, the next step in the skyward trajectories of Bragg’s promising young protégés.
Whilst the evening had been long, at later moments even dipping beneath the energy level needed to keep me locked-in fully for such a time, it had also been a brilliantly executed showcase of diversity. Bristol had witnessed Sound of Rum’s burning ball of passion, the cool, urban rhetoric of Akala and the heartfelt, revolutionary tones of Billy Bragg.
Never really offering a chance for Bristol to relax and ‘switch off’, tonight was certainly not suited to everyone, perhaps not even to many. However, for those that wished to switch themselves thoroughly ‘On’, there had been a great mix of substance, style and inspiration, which I doubt could’ve been topped anywhere else in the UK tonight.
8 / 10
Darren Paul Thompson
Photos: Andrew Thompson