Billy Bragg with Geoff Berner at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Friday (July 11). Sold out. 416-777-1777. Rating: NNNNN
It's no wonder that even a luddite like Billy Bragg is suddenly championing the more direct cyber-link between artist and audience as the way of the future. While many of Bragg's politically outspoken contemporaries remained unusually silent during the invasion of Iraq, the Bard of Barking rose to the occasion with The Price Of Oil, one of the more incisive commentaries on the conflict.
By making the track freely available as an MP3 on his Web site (www.billybragg.com), Bragg was able to get his message out quickly, circumventing both the label bureaucracy and corporate radio politics that can make releasing topical songs in a timely fashion a difficult trick.
"The whole idea of trying to get records into stores is like so 20th century, man," chuckles Bragg from his London home. "When I wrote The Price Of Oil, I thought, 'Shit, the war is going to happen before this song ever makes it onto a benefit disc.' So I pressed up 500 CD singles and gave them away on my U.S. tour last November.
"After we put the song up on the Web site, it was downloaded 50,000 times. Fuckin' hell, I wish my records would do that well. And I'd bet a majority of people checking my site had never heard a Billy Bragg song before - it was a word-of-mouth thing.
"I don't want to overstate this, but it seems like the spirit of punk. By getting the music out there yourself, you're breaking down a number of media filters."
So why aren't more politically sussed artists writing protest songs and taking advantage of the Internet to disseminate their ideas? Bragg has been wondering the same thing.
"You'd think that recent events going back to 9/11 would've inspired more songs, but they haven't. We live in less ideological times than we did 20 years ago. Unless there's a genuine debate going on in society - if people haven't chosen sides already - I think artists don't want to write songs that take sides. Maybe after 9/11 the sides were just a lot harder to define.
"I think the whole Dixie Chicks thing was outrageous. If you're going to say something like that you've got to stick by it. Otherwise, it looks like you said it simply because you thought it was the opportune thing to say. As country women, they should stand by their mania."
Even for a quote machine like Bragg, the off-the-cuff Dixie Chicks jab is pretty sharp - perhaps a little too sharp. Being between albums at the moment (there's a two-CD best-of collection due in October), he's had some extra time to work out a few choice quips to placate the press.
"Oh, yeah," he says sarcastically, "I work out all my answers for these interviews beforehand. I'm actually reading the lines off a teleprompter here. I just have to remember not to use that Dixie Chicks line in my other Toronto interviews. Don't look at any papers from Winnipeg or Edmonton and everything should be fine."
Although Bragg has an idea of the songs he'll be playing at his solo El Mocambo gig Friday - he'll be doing his Woody Guthrie show, revisiting the songs composed for the popular Mermaid Avenue project, only half of which have ever been recorded - the witty between-song banter is in the works.
"I don't think I'll be mentioning anything about SARS in Toronto, but believe me, I'll be badmouthing you in every other Canadian city I play.
"Toronto? It's too easy, mate. You know how the rest of the country feels about you, with that great big willie of a tower of yours next to the dome that opens and closes. What's that about anyway?"