As he acknowledged, Billy Bragg’s first concert in Pittsburgh in 16 years was competing with the Pirates’ first home playoff game in even longer. But the dauntless and loquacious lefty British singer sent a sold-out Mr. Small's crowd home happy (even if some of them were repeatedly checking their smartphones for updates from a few miles downriver.)
Bragg spent easily a third of the two-hour show talking. Highlights included a bit about how Brits can’t understand why Americans don’t have universal health care — which he said makes Breaking Bad seem to English viewers like a show about the perils of unsocialized medicine. Another anecdote covered him meeting the Queen. Bragg also preached that our culture’s biggest problem isn’t faithless politicians or feckless news media, but rather pervasive cynicism — whose antidote is to get up and do something to make the world a bit better.
Meanwhile, the singer and his country-inflected four-piece band (sometimes incorporating pedal steel) were also up for a brisk career retrospective. The evening included everything from a solo set featuring three songs from Bragg’s 1983 debut album, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy, to selections from his latest, Tooth and Nail. Highlights from the former included his early signature number “A New England,” while the latter included a strong cover of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got a Home in this World Anymore” (dedicated to the U.S. housing crisis).
Surprises included a faithful cover of the Stones' “Dead Flowers” (which brought to a point a brief lecture about how American music influenced British kids, who sold it back to Americans). There was also a nice rendition of Bragg’s own ’90s alt-radio hit “Sexuality,” and he concluded his encore with a full-throated, full-band “Help Save the Youth of America.”
We should also add that Bragg made not one but two humorous references to a particular set of British musical peers. Noting that he’d just attended the Americana music awards, in Nashville, Bragg quipped that Americana is “country music for people who like The Smiths.” And later, swigging from a cup of tea, he said the brew’s variety was “Throat Coat,” which “makes you believe you are singing in tune." Pause. "It was recommended to me by Morrissey.”
Rim shot. Thank you, he’ll be here all night.
California-based singer songwriter Joe Purdy opened the show with a haunting solo acoustic set. After Bragg played, the crowd exited to the sound of fireworks from PNC Park.