Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock are British pop troubadours who approach their craft from decidedly different perspectives.
A committed socialist, Bragg is a protest singer whose feet are planted firmly in the serious-minded politics of the day. For the most part, life is black and white (and definitely red) for Bragg, and when he cries out the words of his fist-waving anthem "There's Power in the Union," there is little ambiguity or subtlety in his message.
Hitchcock, on the other hand, is an eccentric who drifts off into an imaginary world in which insects, facial cream and 13th century cathedrals are focuses for metaphorical ruminations on desire and life's mysteries. His 1960s-influenced pure-pop is splendid "music to dance to--internally," as he puts it.
Co-headlining at the Coach House on Saturday night, each served up a career-spanning, mostly satisfying set and took advantage of the cozy venue (Bragg to a lesser degree) with between-song banter that was chatty and witty. (Introducing "Egyptian Cream," Hitchcock said: "This is one of those songs about someone who goes from woman to dude to vegetable in three easy verses. . . . I wrote it long ago when I was just a psycho wannabe.")
Alternating between electric and acoustic guitars, joined at times by Deni Bonet, a violinist from New York, Hitchcock infused each song in his 80-minute set with a distinct, vibrant personality. Perhaps the most impressive selection was "Heaven," a realistic, heartbreaking look at addiction. Hitchcock started singing with a detached, melancholic acceptance of an addict's inevitable downward spiral, but as the song built, his vocals grew in intensity ("You'll wait for it / Ache for it / Scream for it . . . all night").
Other highlights ranged from the deliciously catchy "De Chirico Street" and "1974" to such odder confections as "My Wife and My Dead Wife." For encores, Hitchcock unleashed a sonic blast of rock 'n' roll fury with powerful versions of "Heliotrope" and "Sinister but She Was Happy," both from his wonderful new "Moss Elixir" album.
In a generous if uneven one-hour, 40-minute solo performance, Bragg showcased both the rewards and limitations of steeping one's presentation in political dogma. On the downside, he spent far too much time lecturing the audience instead of allowing us to think for ourselves.
Although earnest, he grew wearisome when his cynicism spilled over to such relatively insignificant areas as baseball, soccer mums and pop music's latest sensations, Oasis and Alanis Morissette. And why begrudge the Four Tops for doing an advertisement on TV? (C'mon, Billy, isn't recording for Elektra about as commercial as it gets?)
Bragg was far more convincing when answering, both verbally and musically, his own question: "With the fall of communism, you may be wondering why I'm still up here pounding the pulpit for socialism."
In some of his best songs, from 1988's "A Great Leap Forwards" to the brand-new "Upfield," he made a compelling case that sociopolitical inequities remain and that the distance between the haves and have-nots is great. "That really hasn't changed," he told the crowd, "so here I am."
What has changed Bragg is his 3-year-old son, Jack. Returning from a self-imposed paternity leave, Bragg brings a new, broadened perspective to his songwriting, as heard in the new "From Red to Blue."
He balanced his presentation smartly on Saturday between the political and the personal. "Brickbat," a joyful celebration of the responsibilities and simple pleasures of fatherhood, was heartwarming.
Most impressive of the political selections were "There's Power in the Union," which Bragg delivered with a fervor fit for rallying the troops, and an electrified, edgy rendition of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," a timeless number that refuses to go quietly into pop music history.