The self-described "Big Nosed Bard of Barking" returned to Milwaukee's Turner Hall Ballroom Tuesday night as part of his longest stretch of American dates in two decades. Unlike his last visit to the venue a couple years ago – and his first Brew City gig in 1985 – this time he had a band in tow.
Bragg's latest record, "Tooth & Nail," released back in March and his first new studio disc since 2008's "Mr. Love & Justice," was produced by Joe Henry. In light of Bragg's past work with Wilco – and with Henry on board – it's little surprise the disc is a heavily acoustic set firmly entrenched in American roots music. It is also Bragg's most alluring record in a long time.
When I ran into Bragg on the street Downtown on Tuesday, he joked that he and his band were just in Nashville for a week to teach the folks down there about Americana. Later, onstage, he quipped that Brits have every right to play American roots music because, "Americana is just country music for Smiths fans."
After opening with an unusually measured band version of 1986's "Ideology," Bragg's set Tuesday night – with a four-piece backing band that included former Mescaleros drummer Luke Bullen – drew from across Bragg's 30-year solo career.
"The Milkman of Human Kindness," "To Have and Have Not" and "A New England" represented 1983's "Life's A Riot With Spy vs. Spy," and he did "Handyman Blues," "No One Knows Nothing Anymore," "Do Unto Others," "Swallow My Pride" and "There Will Be A Reckoning" – dedicated to Scott Walker – from the new record.
The rest of the 90-minute show – which was moderately attended – was cherry-picked from other eras: "Tank Park Salute," "Sexuality" and "You Woke Up My Neighborhood" from his 1991 masterpiece "Don't Try This At Home," and "There Is Power In A Union," from 1986's "Talking to the Taxman About Poetry." Bragg also played a cover of The Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers," which has become something of an alt-country anthem.
Bragg also paid a little extra attention to Woody Guthrie, playing "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" and "All You Fascists" – which he dedicated to deposed Sunderland football manager Paolo DiCanio – from 1998's "Mermaid Avenue," and Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home," which appears on "Tooth & Nail."
Though Bragg and his band tended to sound restrained – especially in comparison to earlier solo efforts and work with his first solo-era band The Red Stars – the group was tight and Bragg was on point, as always, blending politics with humor and keeping the show moving.
Thirty years on, Bragg hasn't lost an ounce of the showmanship that has always been his trademark.
All that was missing for me – except on the earliest material executed mid-set without the band – was Bragg's electric guitar style. That distinctive approach – which fueled songs like "The Myth of Trust," Scholarship Is the Enemy of Romance" (neither of which he played on Tuesday) and "There Is Power in a Union" (which he did perform) – has been replaced with a workaday strum that gets the job done but minus any unique signature.
Arkansas-born folk singer Joe Purdy opened the show.
Purdy started out with a tune so proto-Dylan I half expected to hear him play "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" next, but soon Purdy, who possesses a self-deprecating humor and guileless stage presence, found his own voice and played a set of quiet, moving American folk.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.