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Friday, April 26, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Concert Review

Bragg roams from bombs to bedwetting

Seattle Times staff reporter

Billy Bragg and the Blokes


Wednesday night at Sky Church, EMP, Fifth Avenue and Harrison Street, Seattle.

A few songs into Billy Bragg's Wednesday night show at Experience Music Project, as the socialist singer-songwriter was taking a moment for some speechifying, a voice called from the back of the audience:

"Shut up and sing!"

"Hey buddy," Bragg called back, "you're at the wrong gig."

The guy sure was.

Bragg, the 44-year-old activist-performer from Essex, England, doesn't believe in just showing up and playing the politically tinged folk music for which he is famous.

He brings his soapbox along with his electric guitar and his backup band, the Blokes. Bragg takes plenty of time between songs to expound on issues from global trade to multiculturalism.

On the war on terror: "I don't believe we can defeat the axis of evil by putting smart bombs in the hands of dumb people."

On the success of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in recent French elections: "The racist has to be confronted wherever you find him."

On the last U.S. presidential election — well, he couldn't even speak about it without using his fingers to put air-quotes around the word "election."

Oh yeah, and Bragg played some great music, too, a good bit of it from the two fabulous records of previously unreleased Woody Guthrie songs that he made in 1998 and 2000 with the alt-country band Wilco.

During a rousing rendition of Guthrie's "I Guess I Planted," a song about union organizing from the "Mermaid Avenue" album, a woman in the audience was moved to throw her thick red bra onto the Sky Church stage.

"Someone has thrown a squid on stage," Bragg joked. "Someone come and put it out of its misery!"

In a running political monologue that sometimes seemed to veer into a stand-up routine, Bragg touched repeatedly on the fact that he is now among the ranks of aging rock stars.

He noted that he is now "somebody's daddy," and played two kids songs, one he wrote and one by Guthrie. The Guthrie song, Bragg explained in his highly literate humor, was about "nighttime incontinence."

"I woke up in a dry bed, mama come and see ... "

He also turned his wit on himself, at one point poking fun at the fact that there are now Bragg tribute bands in England.

It's not hard to be a Bragg tribute band, he explained: "If you have an electric guitar and a rather flat nasal delivery, you can play most of my material."

Of course, that's not true. Bragg's delivery recalled the earnestness of early Bob Dylan. His voice was pure folk, evoking images of long dirt roads and rickety wooden stages in union halls.

He seemed amused to be playing at a rock 'n' roll museum (he suggested a new exhibition of air guitars) and tickled by the tall and narrow space of Sky Church.

"I'm a great collector of irregular-shaped venues, and this is one," he said.

During the long encore, some of the faithful left, probably, as Bragg had joked earlier, to go home to relieve the baby-sitter. But the young and young-at-heart remained to the end, which came with a warning:

"This performance may cause nausea or leanings to the left," Bragg said. "These symptoms may pass, but don't worry. We'll be back again."

Eli Sanders: 206-748-5815

or esanders@seattletimes.com.

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