The second annual Kansas City Folk Festival became Billy Bragg’s pulpit, and he used it to praise free health care and the spirit of labor unions and rail against fascism, racism, cynicism, capitalism and “belligerent” nationalism.
Before a packed ballroom in the Westin Crown Center, Bragg, a native of Essex, England, opened his 50-minute solo-acoustic set with a re-written version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing,” issuing lines and verses like: “And accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / And the climate is obviously changing”; and “Come mothers and daughters throughout the land / A bunch of old men have come up with a plan / So forget your ambitions they’ve a better idea / About how you should be behaving / So get back in the kitchen and button your lips / For the times they are a changing … back.”
He followed that with one of his better-known songs, “Accident Waiting to Happen,” then “Help Save the Youth of America,” which included the ominous verse “And the cities of Europe have burned before / And they may yet burn again / And if they do I hope you understand / That Washington will burn with them.”
Last year, Bragg and Joe Henry released the album “Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad,” which explores the heritage and music of America’s railroads.
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Bragg introduced his cover of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” by first lamenting America’s dwindling passenger train lines: “There are no passenger trains in Nashville, which for someone like me with a European sensibility is a very weird thing. But not as weird as the lack of free health care.”
He also talked about skiffle, the music genre that so heavily influenced a generation of musicians in the U.K. in the 1950s. Skiffle, he said, was basically “English schoolboys playing Leadbelly’s repertoire.”
He followed that with “Solidarity Between the Wars,” a pro-union anthem that includes the line: “And I’ll give my consent / To any government / That does not deny a man a living wage.”
Over the weekend, Bragg visited the National World War I Museum and Memorial “to pay my respects to the sacrifice made by the American people in defense of democracy and helping us restore peace to Europe.”
The visit, he said, was also a reminder of “what happens if we let belligerent nationalism run unchallenged around the world. There are many types of socialism and many types of nationalism and not all of them are negative. My patriotism is based on our free health-care system in the United Kingdom … and our ability to absorb cultures from around the world and people from around the world. We on the left can never allow our enemies to own our flag and use it to oppress other people.”
From there, he launched into Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists,” telling the crowd, “Woody isn’t with us but he is always there. He always had a song for the moment.”
He urged the crowd to avoid the trap of cynicism, which stifles progress and change: “I’m still doing this gig and writing these songs because of my faith in your ability to change the world,” he said before performing “I Keep Faith” from his “Mr. Love and Justice” album.
He closed with a rousing rendition of “There Is Power in the Union,” which aroused a hearty, hand-clapping sing-along, then returned for an encore, one that was “contrary to everything I’ve said here.”
“The struggle to change the world is so great that sometimes we all need a cuddle,” he said, before singing “A New England”: “I don’t want to change the world / I’m not looking for a new England / I’m just looking for another girl.”
Before that, he thanked the crowd — “You got me all fired up” — and Kansas City for all its hospitality, and left them with words from Joe Henry, who recently told a crowd in Britain regarding the presidential election: “This is where we are; it is not who we are.”
Making Movies: The Kansas City Latin-rock band played to a couple hundred people, delivering a high-energy set of bicultural polyrhythmic songs, fusing rock and Afro-Latino rhythms. Brothers Juan-Carlos and Andres Chaurand also showed off their percussive folk-dance moves. The highlight of the set was the cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” set to a Latin groove.
Baile an Salsa: The 10-piece band drew a large crowd into the main ballroom, where it unleashed 45 minutes of robust fusions of traditional Irish music and various Latin styles, including salsa and flamenco.
Ensemble Ibérica: With support from some of Kansas City’s finest musicians, including Beau Bledsoe, Jeff Harshbarger, Mark Southerland and Brandon Draper, vocalist supreme Nathalie Pires delivered a spellbinding set of fados, the mournful folk music of Portugal.
All were performed in Portugese, but Pires soulfully conveyed to an audience of about 200 each song’s spirit, most of which express heartache and loss.