I adore those rare instance when a music discovery hits with an immediacy and clarity of a ringside bell. To my mind, there’s nothing more magical than when such a revelation happens in the midst of a crowd, basking in live music delivered by a skilled performer.
The first of many times that I saw Billy Bragg live, he was touring to support his 1991 album, Don’t Try This at Home. This excursion to stand before the Bard of Barking was of major importance to me. Workers Playtime was one of the albums I clung to like a religious artifact during my first couple years of college, especially during those forlorn stretches when I could best relate to its tales of romantic woe. And as I glowered through the president of George Bush the First, Bragg’s unapologetic, lefty protest songs provided the vocabulary for my (admittedly overdramatic) sense of political disenfranchisement.
Bragg did not disappoint that evening. Indeed, he’s always been a thrillingly entertaining performer every time I’ve seen him since. That first night, though, he managed to leave me joyously dumbstruck when he launched into a new song, then still unreleased. I don’t remember if he specifically introduced “Sulk” or if I simply knew this wasn’t yet available in his manageable but growing discography. It didn’t matter, I was immediately drawn in by its rampant cleverness, elegant melody, and cheeky charm.
I got roughly what I expected from that first Bragg show, and my expectations were high. For a few giddy minutes in the middle of the set, I got even more.
Listen or download –> Billy Bragg, “Sulk” (Live at Harbor Lights Pavilion, 1995)
(Disclaimer: I believe it may still be possible to but the studio version of “Sulk” on one of the various collections Bragg has signed off on over the years. I strongly recommend doing so, ideally in a manner that compensates both Bragg and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store. There are also a whole slew of Bragg albums that belong in any collection, led by the previously mentioned Workers Playtime, but also including Talking with the Taxman About Poetry and Mermaid Avenue. This live version of “Sulk” is not from the performance I saw, but it’s a decent enough approximation for our purposes here today. It’s pulled from the archive.org website, which, by policy, only posts live recording from artists who are comfortable with their music being shared in that manner. Even so, I will gladly and promptly remove this music file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)