Almost a year ago Billy Bragg and Joe Henry travelled from Chicago to Los Angeles, a journey of nearly 3,000 miles where they got deep into the largely American tradition of railroad songs. Their new album resulted from this trip as they stopped off at famous and yet dying stations en route to record. In America the aeroplane has effectively killed off long distance rail travel. As Billy and Joe informed us, it is no longer to get a passenger train to Nashville. They played two sets tonight. The first had both showcasing songs from the album and ended with a few solo songs from Joe Henry. The second started with some solo tunes from Billy Bragg and then finished with the two of them singing together.
The show kicked off with “Railroad Bill” a chugging little traditional tune. My favourites from the joint part of the first set were “John Henry” a brilliant traditional song with a great story in the lyric. They did not confine themselves to old traditional tunes though, there was also a marvellous arrangement of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”. I had never seen this as a railway song, but listening to it at the gig and later it clearly is. The stories that Joe and Billy told between the songs were at times as entertaining as the tunes themselves. Both of them share an encyclopaedic knowledge of and passion for music and that makes the whole performance so meaningful.
I must confess that I knew little about Joe Henry before tonight, but I am most definitely a fan now. His own songs are incredibly good, especially “Trampoline” and “After The War”. But what really blew myself and my beautiful wife Catherine (a.k.a. Catwoman) away was his stunning cover of Allen Toussaint‘s “Freedom For The Stallion”. Joe was a close friend of the late, great Mr Toussaint which made this even more poignant. Williambloke took the stage after a brief interval to open the second set and he was on his usual top form politically. To showcase that he opened with a recently written take on Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin'”. He added “….back” to the end of the title and the new lyrics are a very clever and very effective dig at the new orange president in the USA. Billy covered and Anais Mitchell song called “Why We Build The Wall” and that is one of the most thought-provoking songs that I have heard in a long while. He also did some of his own songs; “Between The Wars” and “Accident Waiting To Happen”
After that Billy and Joe came back together for some more railway tunes and stories. This included covers of Carter Family and Hank Williams songs “Railroading On The Great Divide” and “Lonesome Whistle”. There were also two Leadbelly covers, first with “Rock Island Line” which most people in the UK recall as a Lonnie Donegan song. The second of the Leadbelly songs was “Midnight Special” a song that I have heard many, many times but I never knew any of the history of it. Apparently it has its roots in the story of an US prison which was close to a point on the track where trains took a turn. If this happened at night the light of the train would scan across the prison and it was said that the prisoner who was bathed in that light would be the next one to be given parole. Now I don’t know whether that actually happened but it is a great story.
Mr Bragg and Mr Henry left the stage briefly before returning for the obligatory encore. “Gentle On My Mind” a song made famous was first. This is yet another song that I never saw as a railroad song until tonight. Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” was nicely arranged and played. The show closed with a magnificent Woody Guthrie cover from his dust bowl years; “Ramblin’ Round”. This in many ways was more of a relaxing show than a rousing and loud one. But I bloody loved it and I urge you to go and see Billy and Joe if you get the chance, or at least get yourself a copy of their ‘Shine A Light’ album.