When Billy Bragg performs, the audience isn’t just treated to his signature British punk/American folk-rock sound. The iconic protest singer, whose career spans over three decades, also provides social commentary, relating his songs and lyrics to issues affecting lives today.
Bragg comes to Riverhead’s Suffolk Theater on Friday, September 19, and the show will be a mixture of old and new tunes. “I’m playing solo again, which allows me to change the set around every night,” notes Bragg.
The U.S. leg of his current tour begins in Chicago on September 12. He’ll be “riffing” in the Windy City, but by the time he gets to Riverhead, Bragg will have been exposed enough to U.S. news that if there are any issues occurring that pertain to his songs, “I’ll be able to say it in the introduction, so people will be able to better understand what I’m talking about.”
Bragg has played Long Island before, headlining at The Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett about a decade ago. The Suffolk Theater performance comes the day after the Scottish referendum, where the people of Scotland will vote on whether to become an independent nation or to remain a part of the United Kingdom. “[The referendum] will have ramifications for us in England, so there may very well be a song I sing that references it,” says Bragg.
“In the broadest sense, I’m in favor of social justice [and people using] their votes to achieve social justice,” he continues. “The biggest enemy for those of us who want to make the world a better place is cynicism, [specifically] our own cynicism.”
Bragg maintains that the greatest tool citizens of a democratic nation have in igniting social change is the power to vote. “There are things I’m disappointed about, politics in [the U.K.], but the more people who vote, the better our system will be,” says Bragg. “It will be a reflection of who we are as a country. I have to fight my cynicism, and I encourage other people to do that as well.” If cynicism in the U.S. is born of ambivalence toward staying up to date on news or a jaded sense of democracy, Bragg calls on Twitter to weed through information, citing the social media site as a place where you can determine what’s actually true.
Despite social media’s power to rapidly relay information, Bragg still has a 20th-century view of the role of a protest musician, though he recognizes that the internet has changed the game. “Instead of writing a song and doing a gig, [young musicians] can take to Twitter or Facebook, whereas when I was 19, there was only one medium available to me.”
There is no substitute for the community that live performance generates. Most recently, Bragg’s music brought him to St. Louis, where he played an impromptu gig the week after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, in a showing of solidarity for the people there.
“I think a lot of people in St. Louis were hurting. Music gave people the opportunity to come together and express that they’re not the only ones who feel concerned about people [in Ferguson].” The show benefitted the food pantry at Ferguson’s St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. “Performance music has an element of communion, and you can’t really get communion on the internet,” notes Bragg.
The British-born musician has toured extensively, and he says that it’s not hard to relate to both British and American audiences. “There are issues that pertain to both countries,” he says of the core, global need for social change. “[But] you can’t use soccer metaphors in the United States of America,” he laughs.
Bragg’s career has spawned 13 albums. His most recent release is 2013’s Tooth & Nail, which has been billed as more mellow than his previous sounds.
“I also write love songs,” Bragg points out. “It’s not all political.”
Billy Bragg comes to Suffolk Theater, 118 East Main Street, Riverhead, on Friday, September 19. Tickets are $45. For more information, visit suffolktheater.com or call 631-727-4343.