17th January | St George’s
I must confess when I originally saw this show I assumed that Joe Henry was a warm up act. I got excited and thought ‘New England’, ‘Which Side Are You On’ and ‘Between The Wars’; also if I’m lucky some rant against the alt-right (or fascists as they’re traditionally known). Billy Bragg summed it up when he said “brexit, I didn’t see that coming, Trump, I didn’t see that coming”, so you’re probably thinking “why is Billy Bragg here singing about trains?”. This is exactly what I thought, along with a comparison to Bob Dylan’s Gospel phase.
Most of the set consisted of American railroad folk songs from album Shine a Light. Kicking off with ‘Railroad Bill’ it was evident how much time they’d spent performing together. Henry played his supporting role immaculately, adding a whole world of space with the second guitar and helping the top line melodies cut shapes into the air with his high harmonies. Billy, who had adopted a slightly bizarre bastardisation of his normal accent, expressed the sentiment and long forgotten lament felt by the writers very evocatively. He explained between tracks how the ‘hobos’ who often used the railroad were basically just like modern day economic migrants, and I felt he conveyed their plight in a believable and non-gushy way.
Working through ‘The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’ and ‘John Henry Was A Steel Driving Man’ it picked up pace with a touch of bluegrass and later we got to hear Billy yodel, which is apparently the first for an English man on a recording since Morrisey with the Smiths. This was followed by an interpretation of Leadbelly/Nirvana’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’. Shortly after Henry played a segment on his own starting with ‘Trampoline’. This was certainly more slow paced and dirge-like, but his guitar skills decorated the perpetually sad tracks with fascinating colours, cavorting playfully with the rhythm. He did however lose me once he’d taken to the piano. The two tracks he played on it were slow and excessively earnest even the stage itself started to look a little depressed.
Next up was Billy’s solo section which contained some of the high points for me. After an explanation about trying to turn endless social media tirades into songs, we were treated to a new and partially cooked ‘This Is What We Do’ where he managed to articulate the debacle of last years events in a very poignant and succinct way. He then leapt into ‘Accident Waiting To Happen’ prompting audible sing-a-longs before a powerful and equally relevant cover of Alais Mitchels ‘Why we build a wall’ which he’d heard at the occupy event in 2012 remarking that it had become almost prophetically reflective of the world since then.
A few songs later the headliners were reunited continuing a theme by playing ‘Railroading Along The Great Divide’; a song about the Mexican border. They ended the show by playing Bob Dylan’s ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’ followed by Woodie Guthries ‘Ramblin’ Round’ which seemed like the perfect epilogue. Overall it was a surprisingly disordered performance but not in a way which was detrimental to the experience. The variations and excursions they took were more interesting than protracting. Both artists played to their strengths and although the piano segment did drag its feet a little, the show kept a captivating and energetic momentum.
Check out the video to ‘Railroad Bill’ below.