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.
“None of them received a heroes welcome” – Advent day 19 December 19, 2013
Tags: (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, 19, 19th Nervous Breakdown, Billboard, Commentators, Foo Fighters, Get Off Of My Cloud, It's All Over Now, Little Red Rooster, Mick Jagger, N-N-Nineteen Not Out, Paul Hardcastle, Rolling Stones, Rory Bremner, Satisfaction, Saturday Night Live, Standells, Stephen King, Strolling Bones, The Last Time, The Wizard, Top Of The Pops, United States, US Billboard, Vietnam, Vietnam Requiem, Vietnam War, Wedding Present
Definitely on the home straight now, we’re on the 19th December. So day 19 of the With Just A Hint Of Mayhem Advent posts brings two songs with the number 19 in their title. Can you guess what the f-f-f-f-first one is going to be?
I’ll put you out of your misery the first tune is Paul Hardcastle‘s “19” which was his fifth solo single. It went to number one in the UK in 1985 and made the top spot in Ireland, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Austria and Italy. It was also number one on the US Dance charts. Hardcastle was inspired to compose “19” after watching a documentary about the Vietnam war called ‘Vietnam Requiem‘. he was shocked that the average age of the US combat soldier killed in Vietnam was 19. That was his age when he saw the documentary. The song may have performed better in the US had it received more airplay. It stalled at number 15 in the Billboard charts after many US radio stations refused to play it as they considered the song to be anti-American. Hardcastle has always denied this and I believe he is right. He is quoting statistics. Although the average age of 19 statistic has been challenged and various sources have suggested that between 20 and 23 are more realistic. That is still bloody young though! Paul Hardcastle’s 1986 single “The Wizard” became the theme tune to Top Of The Pops from April 1986 to September 1991. He also produced Rory Bremner‘s parody recording of “19”; “N-N-Nineteen Not Out” which was released under the name the Commentators and reached number 13 in the UK charts in 1985.
The second song on day 19 comes from those ancient geezers the Strolling Bones, well that’s what they look like these days right? I am talking of course about the Rolling Stones with their 1965 UK and US Billboard number two hit “19th Nervous Breakdown” It broke a run of five consecutive UK number ones for the band that stretched from April 1964 to September 1965. Those five songs were; “It’s All Over Now”, “Little Red Rooster”, “The Last Time”, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Get Off Of My Cloud”. The number 19 is an important number in Stephen King’s ‘Dark Tower Series‘ and this song is referenced a few times within those tales. The song has been covered by the Standells and the Wedding Present. On the US TV show Saturday Night Live in 2012 Mick Jagger performed the song with the Foo Fighters.