Just occasionally, I wonder if I might give up on the whole the folk-geek thing; that maybe it wouldn't be the end of the world if there was a folk gig in Bristol and I wasn't there. And then there is an evening like tonight, and I remember why I started to listen to this stuff to begin with.
Robb Johnson's gig at the was literally like nothing I've ever been to before. He was going to wind up his set with a sentimental song about talking to a fox on his way home from the pub. (The fox says its heading for the street where he grew up, where he used to pick blackberries; but there's a supermarket there now "and none of the fruit tastes of anything at all.") But someone from the audience calls out a title, so he sings that as well, so instead of lyricism we end the night in chanting: "We hate the Tories! We hate the Tories! Yeah Yeah Yeah! And Tony Blair! Same difference there!" Except, of course, that he comes straight back onto the stage and encores with "Be Reasonable (Demand The Impossible Now)" It's a small audience, but they all seem to be fans, or friends, or his. So everybody except me knows all the songs:
"No master, no landlord, no flag, no guru,
No gauleiter, no commissar,
Just justice and poetry with jam on it too,
When they ask 'who's in charge here?' We'll all say...."
"WE ARE!" calls out the audience as one. But even this isn't the end...he can't leave the stage, and finally finishes on "The Siege of Madrid", a heartfelt mediation about the fall of fascism. Two guys stood up at the back, arm in arm, and started singing along to the whole thing, making clenched fists at the appropriate moments. ("Each child born is born an anarchist...") I've have never, repeat, never felt a more corporate communal feeling at a folk gig, or indeed performance of any kind...never had the sense that everyone in the audience wants to get up and shake each others hands because we've just shared such a great....thing.
How to describe him? There's an element of Billy Bragg in the deliberately naive tub-thumping socialism; folk with a fairly large dollop of punk sensibility behind it. But it's lyrical as well; "be reasonable" is much prettier than it really needs to be. He can do satire: possibly the highlight of the night was a ranting, comedic, diatribe against the press corruption, ending up in a grotesque parody of Rupert Murdoch: "We're sorry...we're sorry...we're sorry we got caught"...which leads directly into a straightforwardly chilling rant about the summer's rioting:
"Cops shot Mark Duggan on Thursday night
When his family asked why, they wouldn't say a word
When they still said nothing Saturday night
There's a pastoralism to it: it seems that once we've overthrown the state and a lot of our time is going to be spent drinking tea and sitting in fields. We start in fully grown up agitprop mode -- ("they cut all the benefits, close all our libraries") but just when you start to think that maybe a whole evening of being harangued is going to get tiring, he starts to talk with great affection and wit about his pupils (he is, of all things, a primary school teacher) but there's still a socialist moral to be drawn from a series of perfectly observed vignettes about his kids. ("Little people, big ideas.")
I don't endorse all his politics. I think maybe its okay to send Christmas presents to soldiers, even if we think that the war in Iraq was a catastrophic misjudgement. I don't think we middle class folkies would really be that happy in the anarchist New Jerusalem. I think that bankers might be slightly easy hate figures, although I did like the idea of a lot of city wide-boys getting trapped in a pub basement at the same time as the Copiapo disaster. (People come from all over the country with whatever bricks and rubble they can spare to make sure they don't escape.) But as I've said before, I think "agreeing" with a song is a category mistake. You don't have to agree with all his politics to agree with what he is doing: creating a communal outpouring of joy based around the idea that things could, maybe, be different from how they are.
As the other fellow said: the song's the thing.