My Tim Allen moment of the day - trying to resuscitate Billy Bragg's manager's iPod - is interrupted by the animated UK protest folk rocker himself before I can cause any permanent damage. With his gangly arms, the smiling Bragg waves me across the hall to his King Street Holiday Inn room.
Within two minutes he's showing me his empty suitcase, which contains just a notebook and a pair of trousers. By the time he gets back to England, he assures me, the bag will "be absolutely chockers." Then he has me examine the fine wool material of the new "old man shirt" that's hanging up. It was really cheap, he tells me, so he's excited.
But wool isn't the only material Bragg's flipping out over. This week sees the release of the political-minded strummer's seven-CD, two-DVD box set, Billy Bragg: Volume 1, as well as individual re-releases of his rough-hewn first EP, Life's A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy, his first two albums, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg and Talking With The Taxman About Poetry, and his 1990 EP, The Internationale.
According to Bragg, the very complete career collection forced him to concentrate on his catalogue for the first time in a while.
"For the box set, you know, this new set, I had to sort of listen back and think, "What will these sound like now?'" says the fan of Joanna Newsom, Arctic Monkeys, Kaiser Chiefs and Editors, nodding.
"I'm quite pleased with the early stuff; it doesn't seem to have dated. I think if you played it now it would sound no more out of place than it did in the middle of the new romantic movement of the 1980s."
That's a tricky last statement, since it acknowledges that Bragg has never really fit in. The brash singer/songwriter emerged from the 80s British punk rock movement wailing left-wing battle cries over thick, jagged electric guitar riffs. As these re-releases show, his production values and arrangements became lusher as time passed, but his bitingly clever lyrics never lost their focus.
The singer broke his own pattern in 98 when he teamed up with alt-country folks Wilco to record covers of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs on Mermaid Avenue, Volumes 1 and 2. Before that he was strictly solo.
"For the first 20 years of my career I was determined to do it all myself, which, in the studio, can be a bit onerous really. Everyone's looking to you all the time. You're leading from the front, you're pushing from the back you walk out and everything stops."
Since strumming with Jeff Tweedy, Bragg formed his own band, the Blokes, and rocked against George Bush with Less than Jake. But regardless of those newer collabs, Bragg's brazen voice, defiant Cockney accent and lone guitar will always conjure the image of the fearless punk soloist.
He's sometimes called a national treasure or a legend. But Bragg considers "anomaly" a more appropriate title.
"I'm just glad people are still interested in what I have to say."
BILLY BRAGG: Volume 1 Rating: NNNN
After sticking the contents of this nine (nine!)-disc box set in your ears, what'll strike you as probably most impressive is how well Billy Bragg painted himself a distinct, precocious identity with the bare minimum. Just an electric guitar, a lot of reverb thrown on a Brit accent stronger than a whack to the noggin with a cricket bat, and the striking sense that you're hearing the first take of every note. That last attribute adds urgency to his plaints, making the subversive lyrics on songs like The Busy Girl Buys Beauty and The Milkman Of Human Kindness seem naked and spontaneous. The rawness also adds freshness to Bragg's wit and emboldens his oh-so-80s pop guitar and vocal lines (more than one of which reminds me of Duran Duran's Hungry Like A Wolf). While it's nice to hear Bragg's messages gain a sophisticated gloss with the additional instrumentation he acquired throughout the 80s, I'd argue that his first two albums are the bloodiest -- the healthiest and liveliest -- of his career, and crucial first steps toward his fancier later compositions. As a telling example, Greetings To The New Brunette from Talking With The Taxman About Poetry is an amazing song, but the sea of multi-tracked acoustic strums and slide guitar render Bragg's sharp talk and clever twists of phrase tamer and more abstract. That said, maybe we don't want him too literal: overly specific references to the Florida election, Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden kinda killed The Price Of Oil, his recent Iraq War protest song. Regardless, the entire set is crucial, as each stage of Bragg's career helps contextualize the others within his progression as an artist.