British protest singer Billy Bragg doesn’t rattle easily, although he admits to having a crazy time after singing a duet of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You” with Olivia Newton-John on a BBC TV variety show, then returning to his posh London hotel — where Justin Bieber also was staying.
“Every time I walked out of the place, there were all these girls waiting to see the Biebster, or whatever they call him, and they didn’t recognize me, some middle-aged guy,” he says. But once, when he left for the program taping with his guitar case, he was noticed: “Two of their mothers said, ‘Oh, look! It’s Billy Bragg!’ Their mothers, mind you.”
If that’s his demographic at 55 — for the new “Tooth & Nail,” his first effort in five years — he’ll take it, says Bragg, who plays San Francisco on Friday.
His past few years have been equally surreal. He curated a Glastonbury Festival stage, extended and reissued his classic Wilco collaboration “Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions” and gave several songs away online, including the anti-Rupert Murdoch “Never Buy the Sun.”
He also published a book, “The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging,” and opened a sold-out Wembley concert at the request of headliner Frank Turner.
“Wembley can be a tough show,” says Bragg, who once saw Joe Strummer serenade an empty stadium before The Who.
“But Frank’s crowd was there at the very beginning — when the first acts went on at 8 p.m., the place was three-quarters full, and by the time I went on, it was completely full. And the audience was slightly younger, but they sang along with songs they were familiar with, like ‘A New England’ and ‘Waiting For the Great Leap Forwards.’”
The left-leaning activist campaigned, too. After the far-right British National Party won six council seats in his Barking, Essex, birthplace and was up for six more, he joined dramatist Mick Gorden for the BNP-denouncing play “Pressure Drop.”
“I wrote a half-dozen songs for it, two of which are on the new record: ‘There Will Be a Reckoning’ and ‘Tomorrow’s Going to Be a Better Day,’” he says.
The ensuing 2010 election results: “They lost every seat they had. We wiped them out.”
Bragg doesn’t always win. When Royal Bank of Scotland executives rewarded themselves with post-bailout bonuses, he withheld his 2010 income tax and scheduled a rally at London’s Speakers Corner through social media.
“If 35,000 people liked my Facebook taxes page, how many of them would turn up on a Sunday morning in the streets?” he asks. “And the answer is ... not many, I’ll be honest. But you have to engage in these debates. You have to step up!”