An earnest figure with a lovely, warm voice and an acoustic guitar, Patrick James’ songs could easily slide into mere pleasantness, but there are some somber shadows in his work that set them apart.

Explaining that some of his songs were written after getting a borrowed guitar back from touring partner and kindred spirit Josh Pyke who left the instrument in an unusual but intriguing tuning, his set includes a cover of Ray LaMontagne’s ‘Jolene’ and new song ‘Message’.

While most of the audience, many of whom would have been teens when Billy Bragg’s first record was released in the wake of the punk revolution, seemed unfamiliar with James, most of those seated at the front watched in respectful silence.

Having initially thought this one-off gig would coincide with the federal election, Billy Bragg admits to revising his setlist for tonight, throwing out some of his more political material in favour of songs of heartbreak and disappointment, sensing his audience might be “in need of some aural soothing” following Tony Abbott’s election victory.

He has the crowd onside from the opening lines of ‘She’s Got A New Spell’, suggesting he has gauged the mood of his audience beautifully.

He’s soon straining for the high notes on another cherished favourite, ‘The Warmest Room’, but helped out by large chunks of the audience singing along.

This year’s album Tooth And Nail found Bragg in downbeat, reflective mode, but there is plenty of political fire and thoughtful defiance in these songs, which see the Essex songsmith sticking to his leftist ideals in the face of David Cameron’s ascendancy in the UK.

‘No-one Knows Nothing Anymore’ charts the continued development of his anti-establishment views, while ‘Goodbye, Goodbye’ is a straightforward lament with real poignancy.

‘Chasing Rainbows’ is one of the record’s most affecting songs, a clear-eyed look at the impossibility of perfection in relationships and contains another great, deceptively simple aphorism in a career full of them: “If you go chasing rainbows / You’re bound to end up getting wet”

While mostly a fairly introspective work, Tooth And Nail also includes some flashes of the self-deprecating humour that is a recurrent and undervalued side of Bragg’s work.

The warmly funny ‘Handyman Blues’, his sardonic take on the “crisis of masculinity” is a great example of this with Bragg singing “I’m not any good at pottery, so let’s lose the “t” and just shift back the ‘e’ / I’ll find a way to make my poetry build a roof over our heads’, then stopping mid-sing to admire his own lyrical dexterity.

One of the joys of a Billy Bragg show is not just his humour or first-rate back catalogue, but his running commentary on his songs and activism, which is alternately sad, funny, hopeful and surprising.

Tonight he reflects on why he agreed to meet the Queen of England despite his staunch Republicanism (“In my line of work, there aren’t many things you get to do that impress your mum”) and his surreal experience of learning of Margaret Thatcher’s death in snow-logged Calgary.

The latter story segues into an impassioned version of ‘Between The Wars’, while he reflects on the ongoing influence of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids with ‘Don’t Buy The Sun’.

Arguing that cynicism rather than conservatism or corporate interests are the true enemy of leftists worldwide, he ends with the rousing ‘I Keep Faith’ and the catchy ‘Sexuality’, dedicated to those working for marriage equality.

A triumphant version of ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’ ends the set, including lines borrowed from his Woody Guthrie project, as well as some topical additions (Some people say women should be quiet / I just say ‘Free Pussy Riot’).

But that’s not nearly enough for the gathered faithful and Bragg returns brandishing an electric guitar for the first time tonight and rips into the ragged, anthemic ‘Milkman of Human Kindness’ before explaining that in lieu of a more traditional encore, he will play his first album Life’s A Riot With Spy v Spy in its entirety.

Thirty years since its release, his debut remains a startling piece of work, grabbing you by the throat and never letting go.  On songs like ‘To Have and To Have Not’ and ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’, there is an urgency and rawness that remains compelling, the unmistakable sound of a major artist bridling at the bit

He re-shuffles the running order slightly to finish with the poetic masterpiece ‘A New England’, including the spine-tingling verse added in Kirsty MacColl’s hit cover.

Even after two hours plus, the crowd are hungry for more, but eventually the house lights go up, leaving everyone to shuffle for the exits, saving their requests for next year’s tour in bigger venues.

A rare opportunity to see one of England’s most enduring songwriters and most committed political agitators in an intimate setting, this was an uplifting show, full of surprises and humour, a reminder of Bragg’s multi-faceted talent and his ongoing relevance in a world which seems as far from his socialist ideals as ever.

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