Billy Bragg tour diary: 2010 usa


Wednesday 8th: Minneapolis

Once again made the mistake of sleeping too long on landing in a new time zone. 10hrs straight through and now I know I won’t sleep tonight. Nonetheless I’m in a new city. The hostel is right across the road from the art gallery, and I’m told there’s good museums around. But I decide to reject culture and opt instead to find the house where the Replacements’ Let It Be album cover was photographed.

I happen upon a guitar store and assume that would be a good place to start my investigation. A customer overhears me ask the store clerk and bounds over proclaiming to be the biggest Replacements fan in the world. Much to his girlfriend’s disgust he’d made them both move from sunny San Diego to these winter snow-locked plains to be near his heroes. Surprisingly though he doesn’t know where the house is exactly.

I continue onwards and am chomping on an apple daydreaming as a van pulls in at the curb beside me, the driver leans over and opens the passenger door. It’s the same animated Replacements zealot from the music store.

“Hey, you wanna get in? I called a friend and he’s given me the address of the house” he said, and I must have looked reluctant because he added, “With no weird stuff, I promise.”

I could hear a Paul Westerberg solo album playing on his stereo and thought ‘could there really be danger here?’ I decided to trust him and climbed in.

“You looked like a nice guy. And I like to be kind to musicians,” he chattered on, “So consider me your driver for the day… in exchange for a door spot to your show tonight!”

“Sounds like a good deal” I agreed.

I couldn’t pick his age as he dressed youthfully (black loafers, designer lumberjack shirt, wallet chain) and had dyed his hair blue-black. Maybe 45? We found the very house of rock legend and took our own photos. He told me a Replacements tour would not be complete without a visit to the C.C. Club. It’s where they always hung out and drank.

All on both sides of the bar knew him.

“This guy’s my guest from Australia” he announced and suddenly everyone was my friend, “Two of your finest Tequilas please.”

We sat there and listened to the bartender’s stories of local musicians he’d served (Soul Asylum, Husker Du, Jayhawks). He poured another couple of drinks for us. Surprisingly the tequila seemed to be canceling out the jetlag, my mind seemed clearer.

I still felt I had to be careful. “I think that’ll do me,” I pleaded, “this is the first show of my tour tonight, I have to be sharp.”

“All the more reason to have another couple of drinks with me” was his argument, “Load us up, barkeep!”

“Aren’t you driving?” I asked as I felt the day getting away from me.

And drive he did, on a tour that included the art gallery (after all), the various haunts of the former artist Prince (First Avenue) and more bars, rolling off stories all the live long day. He pointed out the clear tubular skyway (made famous by the song) that connects the central shopping district so in winter you can walk the whole city without going outside.

Finally he dropped me at the Cedar Arts Center to meet up with Billy and Co, drunk. Billy was onstage running a few new songs to hear how they sounded. After soundcheck Billy came into the bandroom while I was gulping water to sober up.

“How’s Australia?” he asked

“We still don’t have a Prime minister,” I lead with, which really piqued his interest so he sat down.

“What was wrong with Kevin Rudd?” he asked earnestly.

“He tried to do everything by himself. And didn’t sleep. People say he made bad decisions because of that,” which lead us into a deeper political discussion, the first of many over the coming weeks.

Late for dinner, he jumped up and told me not to eat his ‘sweeties’ and left. Later on the gig was great; huge quiet listening crowd, good heckles, met lots of great people. My Replacements friend was there and had recorded the show. Was wonderful to hear Billy again too. I sat behind the sound desk and at times shut my eyes to just hear the songs unconnected to time and place and let waves of nostalgia wash over me.

I went home with friends of friends and lay awake all night, as predicted, waiting for the dawn so I could get up and go to the next town.

Thursday 9th: Milwaukee

Before leaving for this trip I realised it would be hard to travel between shows. The bus/train timetables didn’t match up to get me to the next city on time. To rent a car one-way would blow the budget. Billy and his crew had a tiny car they only just squeezed into but conceded to at least carry my merch. I imagined I might have to resort to hitch hiking.

Luckily I’d met a girl at the merch desk last night who was starting her three month ‘soul journey’ today and just happened to be driving to Milwaukee and kindly offered me a lift. She picked me up early bearing snacks and coffee and we chatted away for the first hundred miles but then I felt sleep overpowering me and spent the next few hours with my face stuck to the window snoring.

The venue tonight is in a huge beer hall. I arrive in time for soundcheck as Billy is finishing his and rushing out again. He calls out to say he’s saved me a Thai meal backstage and he’ll see me later. The foldback guy eyeballs my old beat-up archtop guitar and scoffs, trying to tell me how it’s impossible to get a good sound. He can’t stop it from feeding back and I bite my tongue from telling him I’ve played 100 plus successful shows with it without a hitch.

At the end of the night my friend Brian (Violent Femmes’ soundguy I’d met when touring with them in Australia) has offered to take me out on the town so I implore Billy’s road manager Vaughn to not forget my merch I’ve left sitting by their stuff.

Brian and I end up at his local and we get involved in a game of ‘Bar Dice’ where a group of people including the bartender throw their way out of not paying for the round. Some poor sod springs for the group. I was about to ask what the bartender got out of all this when I realised he was as wasted as everyone else. I managed to not pay for a drink all night.

Back at Brian’s loft apartment we met his flatmate, a pro fashion photographer, and his model girlfriend both lounging around in robes and sipping drinks. They pointed me towards the couch at bedtime. Once again I was wide awake and felt so crazy I skolled from my duty free whiskey until I finally fell asleep.

Friday 10th River Forest

We’ve been granted by the University a sumptuous hotel in Oak Park, an outer suburb of Chicago, that looks more like a prim Stepford village. My jetlag begs me to collapse on the bed but there’s much to explore. Whole blocks are lined with houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright who (as I today learned) also mentored a young Walter Burley Griffin, who would emigrate to Australia to design its capital so that visitors could get lost there in its crop-circle streetscape forever more.

I was intercepted on my walk carrying guitar and banjo to the venue by a couple telling me they were big fans and would catch my show later. What? Surely these people don’t know me? The situation got more puzzling when they walked off and called “See you there Billy!”

When inside the venue -a cavernous auditorium at the Uni- I encountered the real Billy in the hallway and he came up and gave me a hug, “Darren, I don’t know how it happened, I’m sorry… we left your merch in Milwaukee”. I couldn’t get this out of my head as backstage staff lead me to my dressing room with “Mr Hanlon” this and “Mr Hanlon” that. Lost income. My mood brightened slightly when I realised my rider contained TWO packets of my favourite snacks: Sante Fe BBQ Lundberg Rice Chips! When I opened the huge eski on the floor a single tetra pack of soy milk lay regally on a bed of ice.

Just before I went on stage an angel appeared in the doorway in the shape of Sandee Babb, the wife of my former US label boss who’d released my album Hello Stranger years ago. She held a box of said CDs and handed them to me, “I found these lying around, we thought you might want them?” Swings and roundabouts.

I take the extra pack of chips out on stage and hand them to the audience to pass around, and tell them that this is probably the best treatment as a support act I’ve ever encountered. I could hear crunching and appreciative oohs and mmms throughout the next few songs. I told them they’d probably have to break them up to make it around the whole room.

After the show one of the curators came up and said “You know there’s a strict no-food policy in the auditorium”. I was mortified and pleaded forgiveness. “It’s okay though,” he said, “when you talked about the good treatment we’d given you the Dean of the University was in the audience and was chuffed. He came and commended each of us personally.”

Saturday 11th: Ann Arbor

I get a lift to Ann Arbor with two über-Bragg fans, Sue and Barb. They journey to as many of his shows they can get to when he visits the US. When they realise they might miss his soundcheck they decide to forego all road rules and speed limits for the cause. I cling on.

They set the GPS voice to Australian and the woman sounds drunk and has much trouble with the word ‘recalculating.’

We pass my first ‘Tastee Freeze’ fast food outlet and now know what John Cougar Mellencamp was going on about…”Suckin’ on chilli dog, outside the Tastee Freeze..”

Tuesday 14th: Indianapolis

I’ve started getting cocky on stage now and am just asking outright if anyone is driving to, or in the direction of the next show. It hasn’t failed me yet. In fact people have even started asking me each night if I have somewhere to sleep as well.

After the Ann Arbor show a lovely couple out celebrating their anniversary invited me to stay with them, which I did…. for our two days off as well. They also did my laundry, brought me along to their neighbourhood block party and took me out to a top shelf bourbon tasting bar.

On the day of the Indianapolis show my host just happened to have a business meeting in the very city so I get lift straight there. I’m one lucky bastard.

Thursday 16th: Knoxville

Breakfast buffet in the hotel. For the carnivores, a bain-marie full of powdered scrambled eggs laced with chunks of bacon. For the vegetarians the same but with less bacon. I opt for pot coffee and nibble on dry cereal. Off to the Greyhound station for the only public transport leg of the tour, and I realise I’ve left my laptop back at breakfast. Although it’s not Greyhound policy to hold bags the clerk says he’ll do it while I run back because he likes my “English accent.” It’s still sitting there along with my diary and toothbrush.

I’m in Knoxville a few hours early so I wander the streets and get talking to some professional train-hoppers. One of them lifts his shirt to show me his bandaged knife wound inflicted by “some crazy mutha down by the tracks last week.” They ask where I’m heading next and if I’d like to tag along with them. I decline pleading too much luggage.


The theatre we’re playing is the most regal thus far. The sound guys inform me it’s the very room where Protools record a lot of their reverb samples (I don’t want to sound dumb and so don’t ask how you ‘record reverb’ without it’s accompanying sound?). They say if you project your voice unamplified everyone in the room can hear it plainly so I try my last song, the Magnetic Fields’ The Book of Love, off mic at the front of the stage and it’s true; a pin drop silent audience and the notes reach all corners of the theatre.

Tonight a lot of Billy’s stage patter revolves around a local publication called Just Busted magazine. Every page is filled with mug shots of the newly arrested and a description of their attendant crime. The curious thing is that the only other item in the paper is an ad for this very show! Just Busted recommends Billy Bragg and Darren Hanlon. I don’t like to use the term ‘target audience’ in this situation but who will this be reaching out to? The criminals themselves won’t be able to attend so I’m guessing it’s for the average paranoid security conscious citizen.

Have noted how long Billy hangs around to sign autographs and chat to his fans. Tonight the line is exhaustive and it takes longer than the show itself to get through. People regale him with tales of his past shows they’ve attended or how certain songs of his have changed their lives. I stick around too and annoy Grant Showbiz, Billy’s long serving sound man and traveling companion who in the 80s toured exclusively with the Smiths and even recorded some of their songs. He’s eternally hyper and entertainingly gregarious and calls me little Kookaburra.

Friday 17th: Asheville

In the car with my buddies April and Millie, both fans and good friends of Billy. April is a standup comedienne from Los Angeles who I often stay with when visiting there. Last time I asked her if she had porridge for us in the morning and she shot back, “I don’t run an orphanage! Do I look like Charles Dickens?” Gold.

We’re traveling in convoy and Billy wants to stop at a classic Tennessee flea market. A pavilion full of trestle tables decked with weird junk and curios. There are stalls that only sell walking-stick banjos and others that offer medical swabs exclusively. Lots of guns and ammo. Billy and Grant come out with armfuls of old soul and country records. I buy a patriotic redneck ‘don’t mess with my Rebel heart’ t-shirt for my 2 year old goddaughter.

april and billy

Tonight Billy is returning to a venue that was packed when he played there last year but due to bad programing and a massive free festival that’s going on in town the gig is way under attended. The people who are there prove drunk and rowdy. Billy backstage seems tired and dispirited and I feel for him. However when he comes out on stage he gives his usual 110%, the full show regardless. I feel humbled by his ethic and almost emotional when he throws in a tender version of Little Time Bomb, one of my favourites that he hasn’t played thus far.

Saturday 18th: Chapel Hill

After sound check Billy and I sit and chat about last night. I tell him I really learned something from watching him play with gusto when some musicians would take their disappointment out on the audience. He looks at me seriously and in his avuncular way emphasizes the importance of always giving your all.

He suggests we sing a song together in my set so we sit in the bandroom and to warm up Billy strums a simple folk tune and I comp along on the banjo. He starts improvising the lyrics for a verse and then throws it over to me. Talk about being on the spot. It turns into a convoluted talking blues song about Christine O’Donnell, the campaigning candidate (and Tea Party member) for Delaware who, amongst other batty beliefs, thinks masturbation should be outlawed.

All motorists must beware
Upon entering Delaware
It don’t matter how you feel
You must keep both hands on the wheel

He asks what song of his I might like to do and I suggest She’s Got a New Spell which we rehearse and it sounds good with harmonies.

So at the end of my set he bounds onto the stage and the crowd goes mental.

Sunday 19th: Washington

Sadly this tour is over all too soon. I take the Amtrak and sit next to a Political Aide from New Jersey with a case of halitosis bad enough to repel me into the dining car to write. Get into Washington half an hour late and reluctantly take a cab driven by a Nigerian guitarist eager to demonstrate his ability and technique by playing select cuts off the 3 or 4 of his band’s albums he carries with him. I must admit they sound damn good.

Billy sings with me again in my set.

I have to get to Cleveland sometime over the next few days and contemplate catching the red-eye greyhound at 2am which takes about 10hrs. On the off chance I ask the audience one last time if anyone is driving north and one lone hand goes up in the back of the room.

I meet it’s owner later at the merch desk and he offers me the shotgun seat in the truck he’s driving (amazingly!) all the way to Cleveland through the night after the show. And besides, having a passenger will help in keeping his eyes open.

Billy finished this tour’s last set with a rousing version of A New England and after a quick cup of tea he’s out amongst his crowd and a line quickly forms and snakes around the club, people eager to connect with him. I interrupt to say goodbye. We hug and he says he wishes we could sing together again sometime, “now we know we can.” I’m sad there’s not the customary end of tour celebrations but I know he’s flying out first thing anyway, and I’m starting my next run of shows in a couple of days. I give him my thankyou gift of a hand kitted guitar cable, collect my gear and rush out to meet my ride waiting in the alley.

We take the Northern exit and lean into 7 hours of driving through the night. Although having only met this very evening we talk easily and have much in common. Somewhere along the journey I start fading and my eyelids get heavy and he says, “Don’t worry man, take a nap, I’ll be fine,” and that’s all I need, and the night from there melds with dreaming and the songs he plays on the stereo informs the dreams as my head bobs along on the jacket rolled up against the window. At times I wake in a jerk and see headlights rushing towards us and in that instant think it’s all over, and then when it’s not and I’m alive I start to think that it could easily have been, and about all the times it could have been with all this constant moving I do. But I drop off again.

Somewhere further along he shakes me awake to tell me we are going through a one mile long tunnel under a mountain. It’s Science Fiction bright in there. Johnny Cash live at Folsom Prison is coming through the speakers.

When I next wake it’s early dawn, there’s flat grey light in the sky, we’re parked near a service station and I’m alone. I wind the window down a little and the crisp air stings my eyes. He eventually comes back and says, “We’re only 5 miles from my house but I couldn’t go on. I started hallucinating so I had to stop and walk around a bit.” We drive on and then up to a grand old crumbling mansion in the middle of a forest right by the freeway. He looks after it for some old lady for cheap rent and lives in it by himself. “Why don’t you go and sleep on the couch for a few hours,” he offers, “when we both wake up I’ll drive you downtown.”

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