All aboard with Billy Bragg and Joe Henry at the Union Chapel, London
Nearly a year ago two long established singer-songwriters from either side of the Atlantic, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, made a train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles via Texas. On the way they recorded a series of railroad songs written by roots music giants that they released as an album, Shine A Light. This was the album’s tour. Tonight was the first of a second leg of UK dates.
Billy Bragg is a man of great conviction and integrity who sings in his distinctive London accent. How will this Englishman with equally distinct political views translate into a man of the American railroads going back nearly a century? Is Bragg another Guthrie? The show would split into three; railroad songs then a short set from each before they finished the new album. Given the contrast between both performers’ staple material and these historic songs, how would the evening flow?
Any such doubts were soon banished. These are two performers whose love of their heritage, belief in its continued relevance and sheer knowledge of their craft ensured a unity of purpose that ran through the whole performance. The set had many stops for chat about the journey, why they did it and the history of the songs. These men are in the finest traditions of roots music and their interpretation and knowledge of some of its greatest contributors, as well as in their own compositions, is ample proof.
With a punctuality that would shame most UK rail operators, Bragg and Henry took the stage bang on the advertised show time going straight into ‘Railroad Bill’. Its gentle but steady pace could have been their first train pulling out of Chicago but it immediately demonstrated how these two complement each other. The album’s subtitle is ‘Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad’ and they performed just as they did for the album, setting up their modest gear then playing. Bragg sings at a lower pitch giving the songs ballast while Henry’s emotional range acted as the perfect foil. As we know, field songs mean the hollers that were cried out and responded to all over the lands through which these railroads were built and that is how Bragg and Henry work.
Highlights of the first set were Leadbelly’s ‘In the Pines’ and to show Bragg’s command of the genre, he yodelled just like Jimmie Rodgers on ‘Waitin’ for a Train’. Changing trains in In San Antonio they stayed at the Gunter Hotel; Bragg got room 414, the room where Robert Johnson made his first recordings in 1936 (Rodgers had lived in the hotel’s permanent suite). Not wishing to miss such an opportunity they recorded the song in that very room. The set finished with Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain’. Not a railroad song but similar sentiments of distance, this time by air. Like a good set of liner notes with an album, Bragg and Henry’s comments between songs were amusing and interesting and added much to the performance.
Next up was Henry on his own. A man of great integrity he made no apology for the political content, how could he not with all that’s going on back home? Highlights were ‘God Only Knows’ with some haunting piano and ‘Freedom for the Stallion’ (produced for Allen Toussaint). Bragg started his set with a tribute to Greg Trooper before his own classics, ‘Between the Wars’, ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’ and his hymn for solidarity Anais Mitchell’s ‘Why We Build the Wall’. Whether we are all mellowing with age, or it was the venue but Bragg seemed to convey his conviction in a lower key, though without losing any sincerity. But he is still a protest singer and we need those more than ever.
The show finished with the rest of the new record; the Carter Family’s ‘Railroading on the Great Divide’, Hank Williams’ ‘Lonesome Whistle’, more calling and hollering on ‘Rock Island Line’ then, after a digression into the origins of skiffle (and a plug for his book on the same), Bragg introduced two old friends , Chas and Dave, for the final number, ‘Midnight Special’. Home from a rail trip across America we were in the East End of London down the Rub a Dub around the old Joanna.
There was one encore, ‘Gentle on My Mind’ then we’d reached our destination, bringing to a close a glorious evening in the company of two musicians sharing their love, knowledge and interpretation of some of the finest songs ever written.