Billy Bragg at Glasshouse Gateshead: Legendary songwriter celebrates 40 years of his career

A vetrn of the political music scene, Billy Bragg is on the road for his Roaring Forty tour this year and performed at The Glasshouse in Gateshead on Friday, December 1.  (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music)A vetrn of the political music scene, Billy Bragg is on the road for his Roaring Forty tour this year and performed at The Glasshouse in Gateshead on Friday, December 1.  (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music)
A vetrn of the political music scene, Billy Bragg is on the road for his Roaring Forty tour this year and performed at The Glasshouse in Gateshead on Friday, December 1. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music)
The activist and songwriter is on the road celebrating 40 years since the release of his first album.

"I'm not a musician, I'm just a guitar player" says Billy Bragg about a third of his way through a headline set in Gateshead.  

It is a humble statement for someone who is still able to sell out Tyneside's Glasshouse, formerly known as the Sage, 40 years on from the release of his first album, Life's A Riot With Spy vs Spy, but that album is what brought the Essex native to the North East for the first time in two years.  

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As part of his Roaring Forty tour, the singer songwriter is celebrating his four decades as an artist, and it is one which has taken him across the world, taking in plenty of stories as he goes.

In space of a support act, a 'Forty Years in Forty Minutes' film is shown of performances, interviews and other clips of Bragg working his way from a man and a guitar travelling by train to gigs right through to the current voice for many he is now received as across the world - as well as closer to home, judging by the ovation he receives on the south bank of the Tyne once he arrives on stage.

Kicking off the main part of the night, Bragg begins with a stunning rendition of The Wolf Covers Its Tracks, a song which had not been played live since 2006 which the 65 year old hadn't played before 2006 prior to this tour. Stunning the crowd into silence after a warm welcome, the song which was initially released as a response to western armies in the Middle East now has additional context following recent events in the region.

Moving on through the set, further political themes are explored in the way fans can expect from Bragg. The second song of the set, The World Turned Upside Down, describes The Diggers movement and is very faithful to Bragg's initial 1985 version of the song while Sexuality from 1991's Don't Try This At Home album sees one lyric change to "I'm sure that we can find the right pronouns" before the star talks about his stance as a trans and LGBTQ+ ally.

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As much as his role as a songwriter is prominent, part of the joy of seeing Bragg live comes from his stage patter, from talking about stories of travelling over his 40 years to his first show in Newcastle - a support set in Benton where fans of the headline act regularly threw Rice Crispies - as well as his political discussions, Bragg could easily sell out venues across the country without needing to pick up a guitar.

Songs new and old blended perfectly through the night as Bragg and his two fellow artists - on guitar and keyboard - switch from country to folk and from punk to pop seamlessly with tracks Levi Stubbs' Tears, Tank Park Salute and Woody Guthrie cover All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose hitting particularly hard.

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The encore also hit a special note, with the Essex local playing his first album, the 17 minute Life's A Riot With Spy vs Spy, in full before closing the night.

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After confirming he was actually singing songs from the correct album with a crowd member in the first row of the venue, the album - which celebrated its 40th birthday in November, sounded as fresh as ever with a huge, empowering singalong to A New England closing the night.

Bragg may not class himself as a musician at times, but everyone who returned to a cold, icy North East after the venue will have surely been warmed slightly by his personality, charm and hope.

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