Remember when I told you that my brother-in-law had gotten me tickets for Billy Bragg? You don't, that's OK. It was last night, in Charlottesville. When we were trying to get pregnant I spent a lot of time in Charlottesville and I almost went to school there so I know the area a little bit but it was late and dark and I haven't been there in over a year so we had a little trouble finding where we needed to be. We left here around 5 and made the hour and a half long trip in our car, the little Kia Rio, that always seems like Guaranteed Death to me. When I drive it, I feel like I am on the ground. It took me most of the drive just to get used to it. But the gas was cheaper and it hardly smelled at all.
The show was on the Downtown Mall which isn't far from the medical arm of the University so there were a lot of students wandering about. We didn't have much time between arriving and the show beginning so we grabbed a quick slice of pizza at Christine's, which has to be the cheapest meal I have had in a long time. Slice of pizza and 21 oz. fountain soda for $3.50, if the food hadn't been overcooked I may have had another slice.
After dinner we walked down to the Paramount Theatre. The Paramount Theatre is old, built in 1931. It is grand and beautiful with an immense stage at the center. The theatre shut down in 1974 and just stayed empty on the Downtown Mall for decades. In 2002 however, it was bought and renovated and reopened in late 2004 as a place for community acts and entertainers to perform. Occasionally, someone outside of Charlottesville, like Billy Bragg or Amos Lee, perform at the Paramount.
We had assigned seats. In my younger days and louder rock shows, I would have disliked this, I would have wanted to fight through the crowd and get as close to the performer as I could, but now an assigned seat seems like so much less work, I welcomed it. We were given pamphlets and waited for the opening act, The Watson Twins to begin. Someone was singing "Get Behind the Mule" on the P.A., I didn't recognize the artist but I knew it wasn't Tom Waits, I realized I actually like his version better.
At a little before 8, the lights dimmed and every one shuffled in their seats, aware of what was about to start. The Watson Twins, the opening act, were twin sisters with one acoustic guitar, and a keyboardist. The Watson's were beautiful, with beautiful voices, but they were odd and slightly boring in a Norah Jones sort of way. They shared that one guitar. The first sister would play two songs, singing most of the lyrics with just the other sister singing back-up vocals. Then she would hand the guitar over for the other sister to do the same, and the first sister would pick up a shaker or hormonica or tamborine and they went back and forth like this for the entire show. Though the singing was beautiful and the lyrics OK, some of it was odd, like one song that paired an organ with a harmonica in a disharmonious way. Above all else, the act was too perfect, too boring. It made me fidgety, and bored. One sister announced they were going to do a cover, one of the top 100 songs of all time according to the radio, they said. They had decided to cover it for their album, which immediately made me think of the cost of royalties before the song began. The song turned out to be one of my top 10, "Just Like Heaven" by The Cure. Maybe it's because I love this song and know it intimately, maybe it's because I was already restless and bored, wishing I had a pen on me to write down blog ideas, but this was the worst version of this song I have ever heard. It was upsetting to know that this may be some people in the crowd's first experience with this song, and these two girls were doing it no favors.
I hate to be overly critical of artists. Once upon a time we were local artists, we never played such a grandious place as The Paramount Theatre, but I know that it is hard to put yourself out there like that. The fact is, I just didn't care for The Watson Twins, I'm sure other people liked them alot. But the music was nothing new or interesting and their jokes made them look awkward, especially as they stumbled to finish lines for the other one. I wondered about Bailey and Cooper and hoped they would have their own identities, that they wouldn't follow each other around the states to pass one another a guitar just to be together.
After the Watson Twins my sister and I talked about Obama and public service announcements and that we were missing Obama's at 8p.m. for this show. Usually, I would have exited and searched for a restroom but since having children my once miniscule bladder has grown, and what a shame, this place may have had a cleaner restroom than a fancy restaurant.
After a short time, (there wasn't much equipment to change out) the lights dimmed again. This time there was cheering, and Billy Bragg walked out on stage and the crowd yelled before he hit a note. I always love the feeling in a crowd like this, I love the unity of the yelling, that we are all there because we feel the same.
He began strumming his guitar and I could hear the music from "Help Save The Youth of America" forming, I was thrilled, this was one of the songs I really wanted him to play. I was singing along like a fool and tapping my feet. The way I would look with the lights on, a thought I'm glad I don't have to process. He had changed the words to the two decade all song, just barely though, to make it even more relevent for our time. He then went into "Farm Boy" and one of my second favorites, "Shirley". Afterwards he does what I remember most fondly from the first show I saw him at a few years ago, he stated talking politics and the revolution that we need. He joked about Sarah Palin ruining Cracker Barrel for him, that there was just a little too much 'you betcha' in there for himnow. He is English, he drinks tea, Throat Coat, through his shows, and he joked about this. But he got serious, and told the crowd that he may say things that would be offensive to some, 'but don't leave' he told us, 'that will just make for a long string of e-mails between you and I later, which can get quite odd, so stay and talk to me about it after the show'.
He then went on the talk of Nora Guthrie and the lyrics of Woody Guthrie that he and Wilco wrote and recorded new music for the Mermaid Ave. albums (1&2). He told us all about 'Ingrid Bergman' and what that song 'really' meant before he played it. The whole crowd was laughing and I thought it was like seeing three shows for the price of one, musician, activist, comedian. He then played 'Way Over Yonder in the Minor key' followed by a song that Woody Guthrie had written.
He then went back to talking about politics. He talked about how Americans have to vote, that the entire world is paying attention to this election, that they wish that they could vote as well as us, and yet some here on this very soil, will not take the time to vote, to do that one small thing for ourselves and our counrty. He was so moving about the election and the changes that could transpire. He told us that we would have to be strong, he told stories about Tony Blair and how we are bound to be disappointed with either of our candidates because of all they promise, they won't be able to come through and in no way immediately, he told us we would need to support our new president even more so after the election than now. That after Nov. 4th our work would just be starting. He then said 'this next song was written by Laura Nyro in 1968, it's called, well it's what you all have to do next week, it's called 'Save the country" and he started the song and the emotion and the idea were so strong and I could feel the music through the floorboard and I thought about our country and how I should have done more these past few months, that I should have spoken up and out more than I have. I was disappointed in myself, but more hopeful than ever in change. And I liked Billy Bragg more than ever.
It was at this point that people from the audience, some of them anyways, were getting huffy, putting on their coats and leaving. This struck me as funny. These people must not be in hard times (if they can shell out $35 for an artist they don't know very well) and regular listeners of NPR, who were no doubt spreading the word of the show and playing "I Have Faith" or "Mister Love and Justice" on the radio, that isn't as political and obvious as some of his other music.
He sang 'Sexuality' and the lyrics "And just because you're gay I won't turn you away, If you stick around I'm sure that we can find some common ground" meant more to me than usual, I was pumped and hopeful even if I knew that when I left the theatre this wouldn't change anything. He talked more about politics, the VP choice, the public service announcement that he had watched in his hotel ("That would never happen where I'm from, weird."), Guantanamo Bay ("It would be a real message to the rest of the world that you are ready for change if in the first 100 days of office your next president releases those people"), and much more. He talked to a young guy in the front row about the clothes he was wearing and the Clash, he told a story about seeing The Clash and thinking that there were other people like him, against bigotry, how that changed him when he was 19 and that everything that he has done since has been the outcome of that change. He performed a song called "Old Clash Fan Fight Song" and the crowd went wild when he sang "George W. Bush will soon be gone".
He performed more favorites of mine, "There is Power in a Union" and "The Milkman of Human Kindness" but he didn't get around to "Lovers Town Revisited" and I fought the urge to call it out. He left the stage at the 'end' of his show but came back immediately for an encore in which he talked about Levi Stubbs and sang "Levi Stubbs Tears" and then he brought the Watson Twins back out for background vocals on a Motownesque song and I couldn't help but think that they were much better that way. He then said it was time for a sing along and I knew what was coming, perhaps before most. He strummed his twangy guitar and "New England" started. The crowd cheered and sang along, this being his biggest hit aside from the Mermaid Ave. projects and he closed with it the last time I saw him (actually he closed with his entire first Ep that time, which included "Lovers Town Revisited"). He doesn't sing the chorus but the crowd does instead, it creates such a charged feeling. The song ended too soon, his earlier songs were so much shorter, and the lights came on. People gathered their belongings and poured out. I wasn't surprised to see so many older people among the crowd, Billy Bragg has been performing and recording since the late 1970's. My Dad played them for us.
It was a wonderful evening. We didn't get home until 12:45 and that was mostly due to the large numbers of deer by the side of the highway and our slower going speed, but the conversation was nice. We talked about the ignorance of some of the people we love, and how we feel one way, instinctively, to do what we feel is right. We wondered if it was the way we were raised (then why all the bigotry recently from our Dad, that we don't remember growing up) or something stronger pulling us in our beliefs. We talked of next week and how my sister had been complacent about voting but after that show she is going to make the effort (YOU) to get out (BETTER) and vot next week (VOTE) because she felt that Billy Bragg (ERIN) was talking to her and I thought that where as music can't change people, maybe at the very least it can push people who need to be pushed. As I had hoped that show was perfect to attend less than a week before Nov. 4th.
And because I need to, for a cleansing, play this.