‘As a gig it was musically superb’ - Review of Billy Bragg and Joe Henry at Open
- Credit: Steve Hunt
An icon of Left-wing politics and activism, Billy Bragg has long been a favourite of many as evidenced by a packed out venue at Open, in Norwich on a cold Sunday evening in January.
A star but not a celebrity, a musician with integrity, he has been unremitting in his dedication to making a difference since the late 1970s. I won't pretend to be a Bragg expert but I first saw him at an SWP weekend at Skegness on stage in a freezing cold Butlin's holiday camp in the 80s – a young man rousing an enthusiastic crowd with outspoken lyrics full of messages for a radical youth.
And more recently at the Voewood Festival where he was fairly dismissive of the largely middle-class crowd but friendly to his fans queuing up for autographs afterwards – he seems a nice man, a gentle-man. Now, somewhat grey and grizzled he continues to inspire people to collective action against injustice, and his down-to-earth and outspoken public profile has earned him continuing respect.
With an impressive list of albums to his name (10), the latest, Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad was released in August 2016, has been a collaboration with long-term buddy Joe Henry. I hadn't heard it so was intrigued by the title – apparently recorded on a train trip between Chicago and Los Angeles in March 2016.
For this trip, he partnered up with Joe, an American singer-songwriter with 13 albums to his name and a friend for 30 years. They travelled together for 4 days on the train, playing and recording as they went along, recapturing the culture and some of the romance of old-time train travel in the USA.
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Seems a long way from Open in Norwich – a former banking hall for Barclay's bank and now a mixed use venue, lofty, decorative – a big space to fill, in itself somewhat reminiscent of the huge, embellished railway stations in the US, so maybe just another stop on the railroad tour. They arrived, apparently, in a van with just their gear and certainly the gig was not overdressed. Two guys and a lineup of guitars and a light or two for dramatic effect – looking rather like they might be waiting for a train while they sang - seasoned, musically skilful - there's no rust or dust on these two.
They were their own support, starting off together, storytellers as much as singers, their voices a pleasing complement – Bragg deep and full in the bass line, Henry lighter and sharper, taking the high notes. Perfectly together, tight and fluid, old hands at the game of bringing music to their audience. Their first songs seemed more of a history lesson than a political provocation but strangely reassuring, kind of like comfort food, making you feel warm in the belly. As Henry said, it's not sentimental nostalgia but in the same way we replay Shakespeare over and over, these old songs are still relevant, still have something to say – we are reclaiming a cultural vocabulary – and all enduring songs are love songs of a kind.
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So we took a trip across America paying tribute to the influence of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Dylan and many unnamed songsters, each piece punctuated by a tale of the way it came about. They talked about the symbolism of rail travel in the States – a metaphor for freedom, escape, pioneering and adventure, hardship and loss. And plenty of messages as steadily the politics worked their way in - and wouldn't this audience have been disappointed if it didn't? There was a cheer as Henry started his solo set, speaking as an American in England, with reference to Donald Trump – 'It is where we are, but it is not who we are'.
The first set was not for rebel-rousing but deeper, cosier, comforting in a discomforting time with plenty of words of wisdom as neither man wasted the opportunity of having a quiet, listening audience in front of them. Henry ended his set by quoting his dear, lost friend Allen Toussaint who said to a journalist, when faced with losing his New Orleans home and all his possessions 'In a moment of trauma see what is through it on the other side, and what is to be done, let's not dwell on the disaster' and this was very much a message for our times.
The second half saw Billy Bragg back on stage alone and a trio of songs giving the enthusiastic crowd more of what they came for, the familiar gritty Bragg with a reworked version of The Times They Are A'Changin' (Again) – a familiar protest song with a twist – The Times They Need A'Changin' followed by A Song for the Inauguration - 'You are an accident waiting to happen, a dedicated swallower of Fascism' – this got the audience animated after the cosy atmosphere of the first half. He took the opportunity to press home the message that solidarity is a word to bring back into our vocabulary, solidarity with all people for a cohesive society and that we should not allow ourselves to be divided against each other – and so he sang 'A Hymn to Solidarity'.
With Henry back on stage, they headed back to the train songs, with some real beauties such as the Hobo's Lullaby and Leadbelly's Shine a Light, the signature tune for the tour. And between the last song and the encores, a treaty to say that we really need to work out how to deal with migration humanely as the world changes and people will move around it. The Sunday night audience was right there with them with appreciative applause.
As a gig it was musically superb – assured and understated, as an experience it was just what the doctor ordered - food for the soul, a reassurance for those worried about Brexit and Trump, that we can all be ok if we stick together and do the right thing for ourselves, our children and grandchildren. It is probably what a lot of people needed to hear.
I bought the CD as I couldn't take the real deal home with me and I hope it lives up to expectations as they left us with their final train song – one of my old-time favourites from Bob Dylan.
'Throw my ticket out the window
Throw my suitcase out there too
Throw my troubles out the door
I don't need them any more
'Cause tonight I'll be staying here with you.'