On a chilly November evening, I travelled by train! – to one of my favourite venues G Live which is situated in the heart of Guildford for an evening with musicians and songwriters Billy Bragg and Joe Henry. The show was in support of their new album ‘Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad’ which they’ve already toured in the USA during the 2016 American election season.
So as I take my seat in the packed main auditorium I hear various conversations float through the air as people relived in speech every Billy Bragg show they’d ever attended. One person commented to a person in their party “You’re brave coming to a Billy Bragg concert!” Interesting choice of words I mused but I didn’t really think much of it.
With no backdrop or theatrics in sight, it was clear that this evening was primarily about the music and the songs and nothing more. The house lights went down and Bragg and Henry took to the stage to rapturous applause and cheers whilst Billy slung his acoustic over his shoulder and asked “How are ya?” And we were off on a journey through the duo’s selections.
Every roots musician be it from folk, blues, country, bluegrass, R’n B, soul and jazz (Blue Trane anybody?) has a few train songs up their sleeves or on their tablets to add variety to a set.
Opening with ‘Railroad Bill’ in F, the pair presented an American accent odyssey on train travel as Billy informed us “People have said that this show is like ‘Brother Where Art Thou’ with trains!” This then led to the pair explaining how 30-years of friendship along with their knowledge and love of railroad songs resulted in a four-day railroad trip which saw the pair jump of the train, record a couple of tracks at the station (including all background noise and ambience) before jumping back on board to the next location.
As they rattled through ‘The L&N Don’t Stop There Anymore’ and ‘John Henry Was A Steel Driving Man’, I was curious to hear Henry’s thoughts on the adventure. In his words “These songs are about reclaiming national poetry, something to say about who we are. Not about nostalgia but engagement.” This in principle is a strong statement but a difficult one to convey when you are discussing the great music by Leadbelly – it is then difficult to state it is not about nostalgia. The entire album consists of railroad songs from the past.
It is hard to gauge whether Joe Henry and Billy Bragg’s comments are genuine or just a tried and tested routine like that of a stand-up. Wouldn’t it have been great if the pair had sat down and written a brand new composition about their railroad experience for the new album? Maybe a bonus track?
Jimmie Rogers ‘Waiting For A Train’ was next as Joe commented “This song romanticised passenger travel.” Something that many Southern Rail commuters haven’t experienced! The sound of two subtle acoustic guitars does provide a three-dimensional sound to the songs.
The aura of Woody Guthrie hung over the whole evening which made it a bit musty. Henry’s solo set was a timid display which featured a touching tribute to his late friend and colleague Allen Toussaint in the form of ‘Freedom For The Stallion’. Incredibly respectful in the week of the anniversary of his passing.
Bragg returned to the stage a changed man (well, vocally anyway as his previous American drawl vocals would not work on his ‘Great Divide’) which covers the Margaret Thatcher political era and the miners’ strikes that came with it. ‘Why We Build The Wall’ was chosen by Bragg after he heard it at Occupy London 2011 and whilst I appreciate that he has his own views, when he stated “We have no moral rights anymore” it became a political rally and his sense of superiority filled the air.
His anti-capitalism and politics rhetoric is completely dismantled when he tells us that he has a book all about music by the likes of Lonnie Donegan and it will be released in June 2017. “Can I pay for that with kind words and a handshake Mr Bragg? Wait, I have to provide you with a £20 note you say?!”
Artists like these are happy to use the media machine fully just when it suits them and whilst I respect that a lot of research has gone into this show, the concepts of a live music show and a history lecture slowly blurred together.
In addition, I believe that they missed a couple of tricks with this tour; 1) not coming onstage to the sound of a chugging train and 2) not selling branded ‘Shine A Light’ train Travelcard wallets at the merchandise desk. Reasonably cheap to produce, sell and relates to the album and tour.
In conclusion, it is an interesting idea which is marred by politics and that makes for very uncomfortably viewing. I mean, when an audience member asked Henry how he voted the reply was completely unexpected: “I’m not going to even dignify that with a response! I’ve never been more ashamed of my country.” The audience applauded this but I just sat in shock. You might think that but saying it out loud can create a lot of tension and offence.
Bragg opted to not play hits such as ‘Sexuality’ and my favourite of his ‘Handy Man’ (the music video is brilliant and features our friend the comedian and writer Stewart Lee alongside his comtempories like Phill Jupitus. Check it out on YouTube.)
I remember when I first saw Billy at Leadbelly Fest at The Royal Albert Hall, London and he performed a skiffle version of The Beatles ‘Love Me Do’ and I was incredibly impressed. Then I remembered that he was only onstage for about five minutes and I have come to the conclusion that the music of Billy Bragg is perhaps more enjoyable in small, manageable doses like a box of chocolates.