It took a rare series of events to create the evocative and electrifying Billy Bragg performance Wednesday at the State Theatre.
The singer-songwriter known for his liberal political stance and protest songs turned the stage, at times, into a soapbox. And the crowd of about 375 people — fueled by a federal government shutdown over health care and an eroding belief in the political system — was eager to listen.
Bragg took long breaks during his more than two-hour performance — mostly accompanied by a band of four — to urge the crowd to continue the fight.
“In my country, nobody dies for want of proper health care,” Bragg said to cheers before rushing into the Woody Guthrie tune “I Ain’t Got No Home,” off “Tooth & Nail,” Bragg’s latest record and the title of the tour.
Bragg showcased every bit of his hard-to-pin-down musical career — British pop, punk, folk and country — with the help of the upright bass, pedal steel and keyboard among the smattering of instruments shaping the songs.
“I admit that my boots are a bit more pointy than they used to be,” said a rhinestone cowboy-shirt-wearing Bragg, embracing his career’s progression into country and Americana genres.
For a brief time, he jettisoned the band to perform songs off “Tooth & Nail,” including “Goodbye, Goodbye,” “Over You” and the smashing “There Will Be a Reckoning,” which he dedicated to the Republican party.
But the band’s return and Bragg’s trademark Telecaster guitar are what brought the crowd to its feet, the electric guitar leading to Bragg’s most electrifying moments on stage. His well-worn tunes, such as “Help Save the Youth of America” and “Great Leap Forward” from his 30-year career, brought the night to its peak.
Bragg offered advice to the crowd, urging them to take a great leap forward: “The enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place is not capitalism. It’s actually cynicism. There’s only one antidote for cynicism. It’s actually activism.”
Singer-songwriter Joe Purdy, known for a slew of tunes that have made their way into TV commercials and shows such as “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” briefly opened for Bragg. His intimate style of soft acoustic guitar and the absence of a band offered a sharp contrast to the main act.
Purdy’s sell to some is his shortcoming to others. In a cozy theater, nothing offers more than less: an acoustic guitar, a thickened-peppered-gravy of a voice and a brand of lyrics reminiscent of thoughts you’d be afraid to tell your closest friend.
But some of his tunes — and he played some of the softest of his prolific 12-album career — aren’t for everyone, especially in the absence of piano.