My Dad often bemoans the lack of committed political protest songs these days. I'll certainly concede that you're unlikely to hear any on daytime radio - but I think he would have appreciated the evening of good old fashioned left-wing protest music at the Stripes Bar at Brentford FC last Saturday night. With all due respect to the people of Brentford, the place really is something of a hell-hole - overpowered by that nasty A4/M4 flyover that goes out to Heathrow, the GlaxoSmithKline office block and a group of old tower blocks halfway through demolition. It may well be in a 'transitional' phase, but it comes as something of a shock immediately after the comparatively pleasant high street feel of South Ealing. Regeneration will probably come in the form of yuppie appartment blocks Still, it was a refreshing change of venue, and somewhat incongruous with its carpeted floors, and school assembly seating arrangement.
The music was consistently refreshing, erudite and intelligent - with Atilla The Stockbroker trading his passionate, gutsy folk music with Roger McGough-esque performance poetry. It's the sort of thing that is sadly too frequently laughed at - but Atilla is a force to be reckoned with, and his merciless ranting style is articulate and forceful. Chris T-T is simply getting better and better. He's always been an endearing if ramshackle performer - now he remains endearing but has polished up some of the rough edges. He's achieved this without losing any of his distinctive charm though, instead adding more controlled vocal performances (with greater dynamic range), crisp phrasing and a guitar playing style which is now less aggressive. He mixes the explicitly political songs from his recent '9 Red Songs' collection with the more personal songs from 'London Is Sinking', and even a rare outing for 'Open Books' from 'Panic Attack At Sainsbury's'. We also get a lovely, powerful take on 'Bored Of the War', a single from the height of the Iraq conflict.
Both Chris T-T and outstanding American songwriter David Rovics also have thoughtful, self-aware songs in their repertoire. T-T's is 'Preaching To The Converted', a song that neatly captures some of the pitfalls of political protest singing, especially at events like this where the purpose is clear from the outset. Rovics has 'I'm A Better Anarchist Than You', a brilliantly hilarious look at the competitive fervour that sometimes drives idealists to madness. Will I hear a better lyrical couplet this year than 'I don't have sex/and there will not be a sequel/Because heterosexual relationships are inherently unequal'. I think not!
Rovics' set is particularly powerful because he does not stick rigidly to rational arguments but also captures the horror and devastation of conflict. There's always criticism levelled at those who resort to 'emotional' arguments over warfare - but it's also very easy for the cosy British middle classes to forget exactly what conflict means. Chris T-T also hints at this with his introduction of a song as being about 'people trapped in a conflict between two terrorist groups, one of which thinks it's a government'. Rovics' American delivery is slightly to the cartoonish end of the spectrum - which frequently emphasises his words powerfully, but can also become grating after a while. T-T, by contrast, is estuary English through and through.
Local boy Robb Johnson proves the revelation of the evening. I was a little uncertain about his opening tune, with its sporadic breaks for strange words such as 'pre-condimented', but I gradually warmed to his unique satirical style. Best of all were his refashioning of the National Anthem to include the lines 'She Lives In Slough' (good view, convenient for Heathrow etc etc) and something about 'The Age Of The Moron', which went well beyond preaching to a partisan crowd, denouncing not just vacuous reality TV and tabloid hell, but also a certain breed of football supporter.
The evening was intelligently staged, with each performer playing two sets with very quick changeovers. The closing encore with all four on stage performing Johnson's 'Be Reasonable' was appropriately rousing. Its chorus of 'Be reasonable and demand the impossible now!' neatly captured both the innate appeal and inherent frustration in protest songwriting. Definitely an evening well spent.