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SXSW: Billy Bragg plays songs from new album, plus one inspired by the Bible

March 15, 2013

“The problem with most protest songs,” Billy Bragg said Wednesday afternoon, “is people spend all their time on the protest and not enough on the song.” The British singer, who has written more than a few protest songs of his own, was standing on the rooftop deck of the Hangar, enjoying the view of a downtown Austin already crowded with music-biz pros and spring-break revelers, all drawn by the South by Southwest Music Conference. Bragg himself had been drawn to this unofficial day party sponsored by Sony Music.

Wearing a red-and-tan plaid shirt, a sloping beige cap and a red-and-gray beard, Bragg was performing alone, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and witty banter. “Come see me at the Rams Head in Annapolis,” he told me before he went on; “I’ll have a really good band with me then. What’s that date?” he asked his road manager. “April 22.”

Bragg wasn’t emphasizing his protest songs this afternoon; instead he was unveiling tunes from his new album, Tooth & Nail, which comes out next Tuesday. You could consider “Handyman Blues” a protest song, a protest against Bragg’s own ineptitude when it comes to fixing things around the house, much to the distress of his girlfriend. But the album, produced in California by Joe Henry, is filled with personal reflections.

“This is the album I should have made after Mermaid Avenue, Bragg said. “That album connected me to Woody Guthrie and Wilco and gave me a whole new audience—not only here in America but also back home in England and especially in Australia, where the album went gold. But when the National Party, a right-wing party led by a Holocaust denier, won seats in the British Parliament, I felt I had to make England, Half English.”

“Handyman Blues” had the playful sense of humor that so often marked Guthrie’s lyrics and Bragg’s music on the Mermaid Avenue tracks. Equally charming and self-deprecating is “Chasing Rainbows,” where he offers his lover this warped valentine: “Don’t let my complacent mind belie my loving heart.” Even “Goodbye, Goodbye,” the farewell speech of a dying man, has a chuckling tenderness. “The coffee pot is cold,” Bragg sang. “The jokes have all been told. The last stone has been rolled away.”

Bragg sang these latter two songs later the same day during his official SXSW showcase at St. David’s Church. Surrounded by stained-glass windows and backed up by an altar, Bragg allowed that he’s not a great believer in organized religion, but he had to admit that when he’s giving out food to the homeless at his neighborhood food bank, it’s often the religious left who are right there beside him.

“I can’t imagine an atheist world without gospel music,” he said. “If multi-culturalism means anything, it means accepting people who live their lives different from you, and that has to include people who find meaning in the Bible.”

He then explained that he had been asked to write a song based on that book to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Bragg took his inspiration from the Gospel of St. Luke and wrote the socialist hymn “Do Unto Others.” “A little bit of faith,” he sang in the Austin sanctuary, “that’s all it really takes. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”