ROCK / Billy Bragg's new year revolution: Jim White sees Barking's Mr Reasonable play the Hackney Empire

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The Independent Culture
BILLY Bragg's New Year's Eve concerts at the Hackney Empire have become such an institution that, rather like the festive season itself, they have stretched to accommodate most of December. And, like the other seasonal staple of the East End's last working Victorian music hall - the panto - the audience for Tuesday night's opener knew much of what to expect from the evening. Much, but not all.

For starters, Bragg had invited along a tasty dish from Canada called Barenaked Ladies. Despite wearing baggy shorts as a comedy statement, this humourous, parodying fivesome achieved the unusual for a support act - they were called back for an encore. They responded with a brilliant rockabilly version of 'Material Girl', during which their tubby, bearded frontman performed Madonna-style poses of such accuracy it was obvious which book he had found in his Christmas stocking. Such was the reaction of the audience it doesn't take a clairvoyant to predict a big future for them in '93.

After an interval long enough to consume sufficient Christmas cheer to last well into '94, Bragg strolled on stage, alone with a green guitar, a spotlight and a proboscis. He didn't waste any time getting down to business. Within the first five minutes he had confessed himself 'well gutted' by the result of the election, chivvied his audience into filling buckets shaken by the Hackney Miners' Support Committee (the Hackney pit, incidentally, isn't marked on my A-Z) and whipped up a stirring version of 'Which Side Are You On'. As the clenched fists started to sprout, snowdrop-like, from the scrum at the front it was like old times again (well, last New Year's Eve at least).

But some things had changed since last year. The lyrics, for instance, which Bragg had updated with his customary eye: 'I dreamed of you as I walked to the shops,' he sang at one point. 'You looked like one of the Shamen on Top of the Pops.'

For a man with a well-developed sense of humour ('Heaven's above, could this sticky stuff really be love?'), Bragg doesn't half sing some depressing songs. When he wasn't hectoring the house, he was moving it close to tears with a sequence of pessimistic observations on working-class love; 'Levi Stubbs' Tears' - about a woman seeking solace from Four Tops' records - is perhaps the best.

Oddly his choppy guitar style and those Barking vowels, stretched across the lyrics, add rather than detract from the poignancy. As he lamented, the audience sang along in seasonal harmony, not just word-, but accent-perfect.

After 45 minutes of this, he brought on a band and undertook a series of politically correct rockers, which were generally in favour of safe sex and trade unions and against fascism and racism. Rather unexpectedly, he dedicated a song to the Princess of Wales. It was called 'Sulk'.

He then said goodbye, and hoped he would see us all soon. The reunion was not long in coming: he bounced back for a sequence of encores, which took almost as long as the main performance. Between trips to the wings he managed an uplifting run through of 'When Will I See You Again' (not so much Philly as Plaistow soul), 'A Message To You Rudy' and 'What Do They Know Of Essex Who Only Essex Know' and gave us the unusual sight of a pop singer blowing rather than powdering his nose. The violent explosion into a tissue may have explained why the subsequent number was sung in falsetto.

Bragg also explained why he always came to the Empire instead of larger halls where more people could see him. It was, he said, because he wanted to support the theatre's commitment to its local community and its sense of multi-culturalism. A noble gesture, although Bragg's own contribution to multi-culturalism was to deliver perhaps the only 99 per cent white audience the old place will see all year.

He eventually finished with a song about the power of the unions which had the gallery stamping in solidarity, cheering his every word as he foresaw 'a new year of demonstrating against the Tory government,' and searching their pockets for change to fill the Hackney miners' buckets. 'We joined in an ideological cuddle' ran one of his lyrics, which is about as accurate a summary of the evening as you could wish for.

(Photograph omitted)