BILLY BRAGG is a national treasure. What’s more, he has a much pleasanter voice these days than I remember from his 1980s heyday.
I agreed with nearly everything Billy said from the Corn Exchange stage during his gig in Ipswich last week too. All except the quite unnecessary and bigoted joke about goatee beards.
No real surprise there. The surprise was the brilliant support set by Otis Gibbs (right). Like most people there, no doubt, I had never heard of Gibbs before. Which made his performance, unlike Billy’s, a total revelation.
In his voice and some of his songwriting I detected hints of the late Townes Van Zandt. But the only artist I can really liken him to is Van Zandt’s later and greater disciple Steve Earle. The fact that Gibbs stands up well to that comparison is the highest praise in my book.
Like Earle’s, his musical style wanders the unclaimed territory between country, folk and blues. Like Earle’s, his songwriting is personal and witty, with strong traditional-sounding tunes and narratives. His voice is a bluesman’s lived-in growl and he’s no mean guitarist either.
And, like Steve Earle, he is deeply committed to the kind of decent human values that aren’t common to all in his native Indiana. Though, as he proudly informed us, Indiana broke with long tradition this year by voting for a smart and decent man – Barack Obama.
Otis Gibbs’s latest album, Grandpa Walked a Picketline, has been doing a sterling tour of duty on my CD player this past week. I eagerly await delivery of one or two earlier ones.
Otis himself was happy during the interval to compare beards, declaring mine to be “at the stage where it becomes a commitment”. His own – not a goatee – is definitely a case of facial hair to aspire to.
Like Billy Bragg, Gibbs is a living antidote to the pervading mass of manufactured music that means nothing. I can’t imagine he even wants to be “a star”. He is living the alternative American dream, a modern Woody Guthrie with a better singing voice.
Since taking a conscious decision in his late twenties to “drop out” he has planted more than 7,000 trees, slept in what he calls “hobo jungles”, walked with nomadic shepherds in the Carpathian mountains and been strip-searched by cops in Detroit.
One of my favourite stories of his travels is of him being inspired by an anti-war rally in Prague, where he found himself among 500,000 demonstrators. He then went home to be one among 18 at a similar-but-different protest in Indianapolis.
He first met Billy Bragg when both were playing a gig at a shelter for the homeless in Austin, Texas in 2006. That same year he got his hands dirty doing volunteer rebuilding work in flood-devastated New Orleans.
And his concern for the homeless is not theoretical or patronising. When he sings of what it’s like to sleep rough you know it comes from experience.
Despite tales of boxcar travel, though, he is a man of his times. He has a smart website where you can hear his music, read his journal – and see a good selection of his excellent black-and-white photographs.
Not just a good singer and songwriter, but a good man. And vice-versa.
Check out his music, his photos and his journal at OtisGibbs.com
Arresting case of a Tory MP
HAVE the police and the “security services” (whoever and whatever they really are) overstepped themselves in the case of Damian Green?
My first thought, when the shadow home office minister started squawking about being arrested, was fairly clear. It was simply that MPs are not above the law, so why should he be exempt from arrest?
But on reflection, and on digesting further information, the matter becomes much less clear-cut.
Sure, MPs should be treated like everyone else. But should anyone be subject to the kind of treatment Green received?
It’s not so much that he was taken away and quizzed for nine hours. More what the cops got up to at his home and his office meanwhile.
Both places were ransacked – looking for what, exactly? If his wife hadn’t been well up on the law (she’s a barrister) his home computer, mobile phone and Blackberry would apparently have been taken away. He says his PC hasn’t worked properly since.
And all this not in pursuit of any carefully drafted modern legislation, but an ancient, vague and obscure piece of common law about “conspiracy to commit misconduct in public life”.
Misconduct? Talking to civil servants and journalists?
If you or I contact our MP we ought to expect some degree of confidentiality. That’s one thing the security forces have clearly breached here.
And it’s a crucial part of an MP’s role – especially of an opposition MP – to keep a watch on what the government gets up to. And also, incidentally, the civil service, the police and the security services.
When Mr Green talks about a constitutional crisis he may not be overblowing his own trumpet after all. He may have a point.