Near the Freecreditscore.com VIP lounge and just up the street from a food truck selling $17 ribeye steak, I found Billy Bragg in a Texas church.
Bragg, the folk musician known for his political activism, and more recently for a collaboration with the band Wilco, appeared at Austin's South by Southwest (SXSW) festival on Wednesday night to debut his new album Tooth and Nail -- a set of songs decidedly more personal than political.
This wasn't the typical South by Southwest show. The crowd skewed older than the usual twenty-something set, a reflection of the singer's age (55) and perhaps the folk genre, which feels outmatched here. The audience sat in pews, a break from the elbow-to-elbow standing room only scene that is common most everywhere else here.
There was no fancy light show and no corporate signage to speak of. Even alcohol, as ubiquitous as the music here, wasn't allowed inside the church. It was just Bragg in a flannel button-down shirt and jeans holding a guitar with a crucifix as his backdrop. If you didn't recognize him, you might mistake the pared down, intimate setup for a Christian alt-rock show on a Sunday afternoon.
But you wouldn't make that mistake for long. Bragg made it clear before he played his first chord that he's no fan of organized religion, or the pope (who'd been announced just a few hours before).
"He doesn't like gay people," someone shouted from the pews.
"Well that's nothing new," Bragg quipped.
But in the same breath, he added: "I can't imagine an atheist world without gospel music."
And then he talked about the work of religious people in caring for the poor, at food banks and elsewhere. Multiculturalism, he told the crowd, is about respecting other people's beliefs even when they diverge from yours.
The night's set list, nearly all of which are songs from his new album (to be released Monday, March 18), was a departure from the protest songs he's best known for.
In "Handyman Blues," Bragg mused about feeling inadequate around the house. "I'm a writer, not a decorator," Bragg sang, his English accent driving home the rhyme.
Bragg told the crowd that "Do Unto Others" is about the Gospel of Luke and the Golden Rule. He wrote the song on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. The lyrics read like a cheesy poem -- but somehow, in Bragg's hands, it transformed into a man-of-the-people hymn in the tradition of Woody Guthrie.
Unorthodox as it was, the church venue seemed appropriate for Bragg. No VIP rooms or backstage passes. The bare walls, devoid of branding. Shelter from the street noise. And Bragg's reflection on themes from religion to politics to his personal life. Church never felt so radical.